Party conference speeches are always gruelling for leaders. Drafts of the speech will have been circulating for weeks, with the final version not being completed until the last minute. They matter, whether a party is in government or opposition. The speech defines the mood of the party, re-enforces or weakens a leader’s grip on events, and is the focus of intense scrutiny. It is an unsparing platform, alone on stage in front of their party and the nation. For the leader it is an extraordinary moment of challenge and opportunity.
Margaret Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair used these annual occasions to challenge their party to change direction and shift focus. For John Major and Gordon Brown they were more painful and defensive cries for loyalty and pleas for recognition for what they felt was being achieved. In the long years of Conservative wilderness they were annual struggles for survival and attention by William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. For Theresa May the task is as great a challenge, and opportunity, as it was for any of her recent predecessors.
Having won several million more votes than Labour at the General Election, a bigger share of the vote than any Conservative leader since 1983, and formed a solid working majority in the House of Commons, Theresa May is nonetheless faced with a party in a fractious and weary mood. The sight of a newly energised Labour Party and the huge task of delivering Brexit, whilst still trying to deliver day-to-day domestic government, is draining the energy and fraying the nerves of the party at all levels. When she comes face-to-face with her party Mrs May faces a huge challenge and a moment of real opportunity. Theresa May’s opportunity has been handed to her on a plate by Jeremy Corbyn, she should take full advantage of it and do three things:
First she could recognise that politics has moved back to a battle about values, not just policies. Policies have their roots and life in a party’s values. More than anything else Mr Corbyn radiates a sense of good values in his concern for the young, the old, and fairness. Theresa May has understood this problem for far longer than most Conservatives, and long before Mr Corbyn became fashionable. The first great opportunity for her therefore is to recast the Conservative Party as a political party with good values.
Secondly the Prime Minister has to tackle head on this idea that she has lost authority. Instinctively she is incredibly cautious. Persuaded and pushed over months by her then senior advisors into calling an early election she was instinctively against she has once again become even more cautious in her decision taking. She is however in a much stronger position than she realises. The Prime Minister needs to assert herself over her party and throughout Whitehall and the government machine. She needs to move faster, not slower, in the flow of initiatives and demands for policy proposals and implementation of her plans. In other words she needs to use the huge power of her office to seize control of the pace of government.
Thirdly Mrs May and her team have to square up to Brexit. The unspoken truth at this conference and throughout the Conservative Party is that younger voters – 47 and below – voted by a huge majority for Remain in the referendum. Above all else the tone of the referendum and the vote for Brexit is what has fractured the relationship between the party and younger people. As the leader of the governing wing of the Conservative Party it falls to Mrs May to reach out to this block of voters, to acknowledge it is not what they wanted and to explain, now that Brexit is a reality, where the opportunity and future for them in this new chapter in our nation’s history. On the wider Brexit point more openness, more transparency, more dialogue with the nation would be by far the best course as the Brexit process moves forward. Mrs May and her team have to take the country, as well as the party, with her.
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Tomorrow the Prime Minister has a huge opportunity to put the General Election and recent turbulence behind her, to move her party and the country forward, and to get back out in front of the political debate.