With the bar set particularly low after last year’s disastrous speech in Manchester, and with very few personal appearances in what was an unexpectedly quiet conference from a leader who was seeking unity, it was clear that the Prime Minister’s team sought to deliver a safe performance today rather than trying to transcend her well-known limitations. Whilst it was the Prime Minister’s best conference keynote to date, many Conservative delegates leaving Birmingham this afternoon will have been asking themselves if it has all come a little too late.
Much commentary will be made of the Prime Minister’s entrance – with a few dance steps, executed to the sound of Abba’s Dancing Queen – but it was a refreshing demonstration of self-deprecation from a leader often characterised as cold. She had been welcomed onto the stage by the Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox, who had delivered a rallying call to arms in support of the Prime Minister in a speech which would not have been remiss from the bar.
Utilising personal anecdotes and references to her Cabinet’s own experiences, she sought to humanise herself away from the ‘Maybot’ and to legitimise her leadership in order to push Labour off the moral high ground they attempted to establish last week.
In her much-anticipated address, the Prime Minister also sought to give a flavour of her own post-Brexit agenda. As such May announced plans to allow councils to borrow more so they can invest billions of pounds in building new houses – one of the Conservatives’ most radical moves to date to stimulate construction – this would be achieved by scrapping the current cap on Housing Revenue Account borrowing which was put in place by the Tory-led coalition government in 2012. Campaigners have long argued that lifting the cap will help stimulate more public building. May also used her speech to announce a freeze in fuel duty for the ninth year in succession in what she said would put “money in the pockets of hard-working people.”
However, the biggest surprise came when the Prime Minister declared an end to austerity a decade after the financial crisis hit the UK whilst also warning that there would be no return to the uncontrolled borrowing of the past. In her speech Mrs May promised that support for public services would go up and, hinted that the government could increase funding of public services in its next spending review.
There was no escaping that the true purpose of May’s speech was to rally support behind her leadership and her Chequers blue-print – the word conspicuous in its absence across the conference halls – for leaving the EU. The Prime Minister restated her position that she would not be pushed around by the ‘bully-boys’ of Brussels, and was prepared to accept a No Deal. She also caveated against chucking out the Chequers baby with the bathwater, warning Conservative delegates that to do so would risk no Brexit at all.
May took the opportunity to attack Boris Johnson following his raucous arrival at Party Conference a day earlier. The former foreign secretary and darling of the Tory Right had delivered some much-needed rockstar pizzazz on Tuesday following a conference which had been characterised by its lack of dynamic speakers and the empty conference hall, itself not really indicative of the fizz and pop which enveloped the fringes. Boris had attempted to woo activists on Tuesday with a “chuck Chequers” speech widely seen as designed to further his ambition to replace Mrs May as Tory party leader. In her rebuke, May criticised those Conservative colleagues who sought to divert from her path
It is fair to say that the Prime Minister revealed more about her character than at any stage since she addressed the nation from Downing Street two years ago. Talking up Tory values, calling out racist and misogynist abuse of political opponents, and calling on her Party to follow her example in setting a standard of decency that others can follow.
However, as we spoke about in our Conservative Party Conference preview, the suspicion still remains that this has all come too late in the day. The Prime Minister is aware that she is perilously close to losing total support for her Brexit deal and unless she can somehow materialise a deal that appeases both wings of her party, she is unlikely to address another Party Conference as leader.