9th October 2017
Theresa May’s speech to this year’s Conservative Party Conference was the Prime Minister’s best opportunity to rally her party and secure her position as Parliament returns for the Autumn. After weeks of “backseat driving” from Boris Johnson and anonymous criticism from her ministers, the received wisdom that May would lead the country through the Brexit process and no further has become strained. Following a jubilant Labour Conference that resembled a party hungry for power (worlds away from last year’s sombre affair in Liverpool), the stakes heading to Manchester could not have been higher for the Tories.
But what needed to be the speech of Theresa May’s life rapidly became a fight for survival as the Prime Minister fought back a coughing fit to deliver her address, just moments after a man broke through security to hand May a P45 from the floor. Few could blame the Prime Minister for this unfortunate sequence of events, but as metaphors go, this was not the composed and commanding image that Theresa May so desperately needed to project, both to her party and the country at large.
Saddest of all for the Prime Minister, the theatrics surrounding the speech deflected from the substance that it meant to convey. Following on from last week’s speech to the Bank of England, Mrs May reiterated her call for the Conservatives to restate the case for free-market economics as Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party seeks to reignite the pitched ideological battles that many thought had been left in the last Century. Theresa May also declared that the project of tackling “injustice” that she outlined on the steps of Downing Street over a year ago still carried weight. Using the speech to flesh out this agenda, the PM committed to a new programme of council house building and announced that a long-awaited Bill to cap energy prices would hit the floor of the House of Commons next week.
The danger for the Conservatives is that as attractive as these announcements may be to voters, they give the impression of following belatedly in Labour’s wake rather than blazing a new, innovative policy trail. This was certainly the criticism levelled at May’s announcement on Marr that tuition fee rises are to be scrapped while Jeremy Corbyn used his conference speech to emphasise Labour’s pledge to scrap fees altogether and invest even greater amounts in social housing.
The Prime Minister increasingly looks to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. Weakened by the loss of her majority and consumed by the task of delivering Brexit, Theresa May lacks both the support and necessary time to push through the reforming agenda set out in June’s manifesto that challenged many of the orthodoxies of the Cameron-Osborne years. But such a bold strategy is likely to be the PM’s best means of confronting an insurgent Labour Party that seems to have a new policy offering for every issue, regardless of how controversial some of these proposals may be.
The question this begs is whether Theresa May’s plan to stay in office at least until the end of the Article 50 process looks increasingly unsustainable. With the next election scheduled for 2022, electing a successor to May in 2019 or 2020 leaves the Conservative Party with precious little time to renew itself for government and to ensure that it, rather than the Labour Party, is setting the agenda going into the next election. The other major issue is that because Theresa May is effectively serving at the pleasure of her Cabinet, she is in no position to sack current ministers and promote rising stars to Cabinet level who could then lead the party beyond 2019.
If Mrs May is to face a leadership challenge in the short-term, it could only realistically come from within the Cabinet. In a week where the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid chose to leave a Guardian interview rather than answer the question of whether he backed Mrs May leading the party into the next election, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson’s timely reconciliation (the former enthusing over the latter’s conference speech on live television) cannot be ignored as yet another indication that the Foreign Secretary and his allies are on manoeuvres.
With the November Budget fast approaching, the Government is running out of ‘set-piece’ opportunities to stake its claim on domestic reform issues where Labour is insurgent. And with Amber Rudd having to nudge Boris Johnson into standing to applaud Mrs May’s speech, the prospects of securing the Cabinet unity necessary to deliver a convincing domestic policy offer appear more distant by the day.
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