A tale of two conferences

The contrasts between the Labour and Conservative conferences could not have been more stark.

Last week we saw a Labour party largely united in purpose and fully supportive of Jeremy Corbyn’s left wing agenda. This week, the Conservatives’ lack of cohesion over Brexit and Theresa May’s leadership dominated the agenda.

The Tories tried to shift the conversation, using media interviews and Ministerial keynote speeches to announce policies on everything from more funding for social care to allowing workers in the hospitality industry to keep all their tips.

But all the media and activists were interested in was the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan and whether Boris Johnson would be able to get a better deal for Britain.

For the majority of the week all the energy was to be found on the conference fringe, where prominent Brexiteers like Jacob Rees Mogg spoke to packed halls and rapt audiences. Indeed after May’s Sunday media interviews were spiked by Boris Johnson, her team hit back by announcing new immigration rules on the day of Boris’ sole conference appearance.

While this took some of the wind out of Johnson’s sails, his speech on the eve of the Prime Minister’s was a clear audition for the top job, and a reminder of the days when Gordon Brown and Tony Blair each set out differing visions for the Labour party.

Ranging widely, Johnson said his biggest worry was that the Government seemed to be lacking in confidence and self-belief – not only over Brexit but also basic conservative values like freedom and choice. He called for ambitious new policies on house building and lower taxes before branding the PM’s ‘Chequers’ plan a “dangerous” capitulation to Brussels. His alternative: an ambitious “Super Canada trade deal at the heart of a deep and special partnership”.

So the pressure was on Theresa May as she prepared to deliver her speech the next day. Expectations were certainly low after her disastrous performance last year, but the PM used humour, self-deprecation and appeals above party politics to win the hall round.

After entering the stage to Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ and reprising her now infamous robot dance, she criticised today’s rancorous politics that saw Diane Abbott, the first black female MP, receiving more sexist and racist abuse than when she was first elected more than 30 years ago. And the audience in the hall were truly in her hands when she highlighted Tories’ commitment to opportunity, naming Sajid Javid and Esther McVey who had risen from humble beginnings to be members of the Cabinet.

There was a definite sense of building a bank of goodwill before telling the party some home truths on Brexit. Although she didn’t personally use the word ‘Chequers’ – a word vetoed by party managers this week – she defended her plan as a sensible and pragmatic compromise and the only way to ensure frictionless trade, protect jobs, maintain the union and control immigration. And while she didn’t refer to him by name, she took on Boris Johnson’s approach to Brexit twice, arguing his push for a “perfect” deal risked resulting in no Brexit at all, and criticising his reported use of a four-letter word to refer to business leaders’ concerns, saying the Conservatives should always “back business”.

As the PM’s speech turned to the Government’s broader policy agenda beyond Brexit, addressing issues such as housebuilding and the need for regulation of the free market to ensure fairness, it gradually dawned on those listening that the PM was essentially calling for more of the same. There was a palpable sense of enthusiasm draining and the applause becoming noticeably more subdued.

In the end, Mrs May’s speech was well crafted and competently delivered, but it did not answer the many unanswered questions that still remain over Brexit. Even at this stage, many of these questions are unanswerable given that we won’t know what terms the PM will be able to secure until the final deal is done.

So while this speech will have bought the Prime Minister some time, the media’s clamour for answers and her party’s desire for an inspiring alternative vision will not have gone away.

Written by Burhan Al-Gailani, Public Affairs Practice Director

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