Mo Hussein, Head of Public Affairs at PLMR and former advisor to the Home Secretary, analyses UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s performance at the annual Conservative Party Conference – where Conservative Party MPs and members meet to discuss the important issues affecting the party and the country.
This was the speech that all eyes were on and the Prime Minister knew it. Following her speech last year and the issues surrounding that, the well-attended conference intervention from Boris Johnson on the eve of her own appearance on the main stage, and a Conservative MP handing in a letter of no confidence in her leadership minutes before she was due to start speaking – the PM knew she would have to deliver in terms of performance, style and substance. Media, MPs, Cabinet Ministers and delegates would all be watching closely.
The Prime Minister came onto the stage dancing to Abba’s “Dancing Queen”, which I think is fair to say was an unexpected entrance from one of the least likely candidates. But this was the Prime Minister tapping into something we also saw on her recent Africa trip, showing she is comfortable and confident in her role and in who she is, and showing an accessibility and keenness to connect with people. Optics matter just as much as words.
The speech saw the Prime Minister reach out to people across different sections of society as she rooted the Conservative Party firmly in the centre ground. She reiterated her belief that things like race, gender and social background should not be barriers to how far people can go in life and explicitly referred to her personal commitment to tackling burning injustices – an echo of the speech she gave outside Downing Street shortly after her appointment as Prime Minister. This approach was perhaps in response to criticism from some quarters that she and the Government have lost their way in this regard, that there is too much focus on Brexit and a lack of new ideas. In any case, by choosing to focus on this and a wider domestic agenda, the Prime Minister was showing that the Government is keen to not only deal with Brexit, but also to regain the initiative on domestic issues and show that it is in touch with people and can address issues they are concerned about and which affect their everyday lives. And that they can do so with a sense of imagination and gusto.
We heard policy announcements around a new strategy to tackle cancer, freezing fuel duty for another year to help people with the cost of living, and the big one – removing the cap which limits how much local councils can virtue against their housing revenue, designed to get more houses built and more young people on the housing ladder. We also heard a staunch defence of free markets and crucially, we heard that austerity was over – a big and politically significant statement from the Prime Minister showing that the Government understands public sentiment and is prepared to provide more support for public services. However, it is worth remembering that the Chancellor already has to find £20bn of extra funding for the NHS, as announced by the Government in spring, and that the Government is still committed to reducing the UK’s debt and not undoing the hard work of the British people over the past 8 years. As such, the details of what the end of austerity actually means will be much pored over and scrutinised in the weeks to come.
It was clear that the Prime Minister didn’t want this speech to just focus on Brexit. This section came about 20 minutes in where the Prime Minister reiterated her opposition to having a second referendum or a “People’s Vote” and restated her position that no deal would be better than a bad deal and we are not afraid to leave with a no deal if we have to – the latter point receiving a significant round of applause in the room. She also repeated her belief that the EU needs to show the UK respect and compromise, and that divisions in the Conservative Party risk no Brexit at all. Her choice of language and what she didn’t say was interesting here, she didn’t use the word “Chequers” (the name of the Prime Minister’s country residence and the nickname for the much maligned Brexit deal that was penned by the Prime Minister during a retreat there earlier in the year) which different factions of the party are opposed to, instead referring to “our proposals” and noticeably taking the time to explain to the audience of MPs and party members who have taken issue with these what the proposals actually mean.
Overall, it was a confident performance where the Prime Minister tried to set out a moderate, positive vision with acknowledgement that the Government needs to be more proactive on the domestic agenda and address the concerns that people have which are not bread and butter Brexit issues. This felt like the Theresa May of summer 2016.
However, challenges remain as exemplified by the vote of no confidence letter being submitted to the Conservative Party challenging Theresa May’s ability to lead the party as Prime Minister. The speech will not have changed entrenched positions within the party on the Chequers Deal and Brexit, and there are now just two weeks to go until the next EU summit where progress on the Withdrawal Agreement needs to be made and the Northern Ireland border issue still seems to be the key sticking point. But today, the Government is looking stronger, purposeful and more assured.