While Jeremy Corbyn went into his Party Conference with his position enhanced and a direction of travel that is relatively clear (leftwards, leftwards, ever leftwards), Theresa May faces a much tougher time in Manchester next week.
In less than six months she has gone from being the most popular PM since the 1970s, with 61% of people polled saying she would make the best Prime Minister back in April 2017, to someone hanging onto office with just 37% now saying she would make the best PM. Her decision to call a snap election, the way that election campaign was run, and the resultant loss of seats and resurgence of the Labour Party have all damaged her standing within the Conservative Party and across the country at large: moreover, her personal reputation for competence has been destroyed.
As a result, this Conference has an air of ‘make or break’ for Theresa May personally. Both the voluntary side of the Conservative Party and its MPs have been clamouring for change and are desperate for signs that the Party can rejuvenate itself again. Voters will want to see signs that the Party is capable of governing effectively and can address the issues that affect them and their families. The media will be on the lookout for disunity and talk of leadership challenges.
Here are a few things to look out for over the next few days.
Voluntary Party Revolt
The way the snap General Election was handled caused huge anger within the voluntary wing of the Conservative Party. It was branded the most centrally-driven campaign ever, from how candidates were selected to every local leaflet being signed off by Conservative Campaign HQ. There were complaints that there was no positive message put across, nor a coherent manifesto produced on which to campaign. All of this might have been overlooked had the PM won a big majority but the fact that seats were lost has seen a major backlash from local party members and officers. A review into the way the election was handled has been carried out by former Party Chairman, Sir Eric Pickles, and the results of this review will be revealed to a meeting open to all Party members, and with Party Chairman Sir Patrick McLoughlin in attendance, on the Sunday morning of Conference. This session is likely to be an angry one, with calls to change the way CCHQ operates and a bigger role for volunteers in the way the Party is run. This could very well set the tone for the rest of the Conference. Can McLoughlin and co quell the revolt?
Under fire from MPs
The PM faces blue on blue fire from all sides. She is taking hits from Remain-supporting Conservative MPs who want to water down the Great Repeal Bill, from Leave-supporting MPs who feel her Florence speech represents backsliding, and from social-minded MPs calling for the flagship Universal Credit policy to be delayed, to give just a few examples. Because many MPs feel the Government does not have much of a direction at the moment, expect many more than usual being prepared to speak out on all sorts of policy issues in order to try and ginger up debate themselves.
The subject of ‘who will be the next leader’ is an ever-present at Conservative Party Conference. However, it is likely to be talked about more than usual, at least since the last Conference of the Iain Duncan Smith leadership, back in 2003. There are the usual names being talked of – not least Boris Johnson – but there is a growing feeling within the Party membership that the current crop of senior Cabinet members might not contain the future leader the Party needs to rejuvenate. (Why, some will say, can’t we get Ruth Davidson a seat in the Commons!) As a result, there has been recent talk of the next leadership election skipping a generation, and eyes are starting to turn to lesser known, often younger figures within the Party as potential candidates. Members will be eyeing up junior Ministers and younger MPs from the new intakes with interest. Those junior Ministers and MPs will, similarly, be putting themselves on show. Some of the more ambitious, and less-subtle, will probably even have proto-campaign teams in place to talk themselves up. Will anyone manage to put in bravura performances at this Conference to give themselves a shot should a leadership election take place?
On the fringe
Last year’s Conservative Conference saw a major focus on housing and planning issues, both within the main hall and across the many fringe events around the conference venue. A quick look at the conference handbook shows that trend continuing – housing, Brexit and what might be summarised as social mobility/intergenerational fairness are by far and away the top three themes on the Conservative fringe in 2017. It is perhaps a sign of what Party members believe are the key issues they need to focus on if they are to win a majority in future.
Pressing the reset button
Against all this, the PM will want to somehow start afresh. She has stated her desire to not allow her term of office to be defined by Brexit and we will no doubt see a return to some of the language and policy focus of her speech on the steps of Downing Street when she became PM. We will hear much repetition of fairness; we will see her make a positive case for free markets, although this will be tempered by a continued targeting of the perceived excesses of some big businesses; there will be a great deal of talk about social mobility. The Party’s focus on the North of England, housebuilding, and job creation will continue. Much will be made about the Party’s resurgence in Scotland under Ruth Davidson. There will be renewed attempts to convince voters that public services, not least the NHS, are safe in the Conservative Party’s hands. However, despite all this domestic focus, the elephant of Brexit in the room will have to be addressed. The PM will continue to walk a tightrope, remaining tight-lipped about specifics whilst maintaining that Brexit will be delivered, voters’ wishes will be honoured and that a bespoke, positive and rewarding deal with the EU can and will be negotiated.
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