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Today was a moment of epiphany. It was the moment we finally saw and heard Theresa May the person, as opposed to Theresa May the politician. It was extraordinary, inspiring and slightly disconcerting. For those of us who have willed Mrs May on since she first entered No 10 it was a moment of joy. Much credit must go to those around her – Gavin Barwell, Robbie Gibb and David Lidington, among others – but in the end, as the Tory leader, credit when things go well, like blame when things go wrong, must ultimately go to her.
Much rested on this conference speech. The conference itself had gone smoothly enough. The main speeches were fine on the whole – David Gauke, Damian Hinds and Liz Truss having delivered solid if little noticed performances. The fringe had attracted most of the attention, as it is bound to do because it is a place where people can speak and debate more freely than in the main hall. Boris had come, seen and conspicuously failed to conquer. Amid all the noise and froth Mrs May went about the duties of party leader and Prime Minister – visiting stalls, meeting activists, attending receptions, and governing the country.
A party member and activist long before holding elected office and Ministerial responsibilities Mrs May knows the Conservative Party better than any leader in modern times, and the party knows her. This is her strength as leader; she is rooted in the party. She is of the Conservative Party. This year Mrs May knew she had to provide something for her fellow party members to gather around – a sense of direction, mission and purpose.
Unlike some her of political opponents and aspirant successors she is not an attention seeking politician. No-one could accuse Mrs May of revelling in the spotlight that comes with high political office. In an age when politics can seem little more than a personality contest the Prime Minister has at times seemed uncomfortable, and this has harmed her political authority. In the end however the hope that authenticity will win out over hyperbole, decency will trump populism, integrity will beat shallowness, must be something everyone who believes in democratic debate and Parliamentary democracy must want.
In Birmingham Mrs May did more, much more, than stabilise a premiership. She gave her government new purpose and put down a marker for sensible, balanced, moderate politics. Arguments over Brexit, housing, public spending and all the rest will not be ended today, but what Mrs May offered, above all else, is the offer of decent, value driven, one-nation politics – and today her party loved her for it.