Today May recast the centre ground. Josh Lambkin took in a very new era for the Conservative Party.
Be in no doubt, this was Theresa May’s conference. Her strategy was clear. Take the heat out of Brexit by making a concrete announcement ahead of conference, clearing the way for her to methodically flesh out her vision for the country with her closing Conference speech – ‘a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few’.
Ministers were subjected to ruthless message discipline. Which, in reality, led to a series of notably uneventful speeches by ministers who had clearly been warned not to pull any rabbits out of the hat. A marked end to the PR bonanza of Cameron’s days, in favour of a more workmanlike atmosphere.
Conference was trailed by May’s first meaningful engagement with the national media, a long interview in The Sunday Times. The plan appeared to be a confirmation of what commentators have been calling ‘hard Brexit’, where the UK withdraws entirely from the Single Market – a plan we shared with our clients on 28 September. Deeper within The Sunday Times was a fairly sustained critique of government policy from high Tory and veteran Europhile, Ken Clarke – a point of contention which, in many ways, came to define the rest of the conference – thanks in no small part to the work of other MPs like the former Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan.
Watching the main speeches and touring fringe events did reveal another emerging trend within the party: a willingness to move on from the Cameron era, identify as an anti-Corbyn movement and redefine the centre ground. One may have reasonably assumed that developments in the Labour Party would not be a subject of much interest at the conference of a governing Conservative party, four years ahead of a General Election but May’s Government seems determined to make hay while the sun is shining. Almost every single Secretary of State used their statements to attack Corbyn, depicting the opposition as the Party of waste, economic incompetence and flawed ideology. Since the days of Thatcher, the right have been reluctant to identify themselves by their opposition to socialism, but the advent of Corbynism has clearly changed the logic.
This culminated in a confident, brave speech which spoke to large swathes of the country. Blair’s communitarianism, Miliband’s interventionism, Brown’s sense of moral purpose and even a subtle rejection of Thatcher’s individualism. This was Conservatism redrawn in her image. Vision done. Now we await the policy to deliver it.
Pagefield have attended both conferences. For Labour – with their leader allegedly walking Hadrian’s Wall rather than watching the speech – the challenge was clear. May is rooting herself in the centre ground for the long haul. Issues which would be thought of as Labour she sought to take on. She already leads Corbyn on trust with the NHS and her labelling of Labour as the “nasty party” was wounding. She has no opposition and she knows it. The playing field is empty.
The party faithful are clearly growing to love May in a way they never did with Cameron. She has done the regional receptions diligently, posters of her sold out from the party shop and there was a sense of anticipation for her speech. This is a party re-energised but it remains to be seen, over the coming months, what the impacts of that will be for businesses, communities and most importantly, Brexit.