Expectations could hardly have been lower going into the Conservative Party Conference. The Boris Johnson show promised to derail any carefully choreographed messaging from Number 10. The Tories themselves seemed desperately short of ideas, particularly following the radical ideas from Labour in Liverpool the previous week and Ministers ranging from Sam Gimyah to Liz Truss were queueing up to criticise the direction of the party. Yet despite all this, Theresa May has emerged in a stronger position and there were a number of policy announcements that appear to signal a change of strategy. May has successfully bought herself time with which to negotiate Brexit, but big questions remain about her long term future and that of the Conservative Party.
Confounding the expectations of some in her party, Theresa May delivered one of the most accomplished speeches as Prime Minister, setting out a new, more centrist policy direction for the party. Similar in theme to her first speech as Prime Minister, where she pledged to tackle the ‘burning injustices’ within British society, May set out a vision of an inclusive Tory party that would enforce a form of responsible capitalism. This serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it establishes Mayism as clearly separate from policy visions of Boris Johnson and others in the ERG. Secondly, it attempts to formulate an answer to the popular Labour policies that have developed as a result of voters feeling that the government is ignoring issues of inequality and the funding of public services. The positive reception to the speech will likely serve to quieten critics in the short term. However, May has not offered solutions to the Brexit negotiations that will please either wing of her party, and will need to find a resolution to the issue if she is to remain as party leader in the long term.
Housing is also likely to be high on the Budget agenda, after the housing crisis dominated the speech of several high-profile speakers, including Theresa May and Boris Johnson. Both had a similar message: that as the party of opportunity, the failure of young people to get on the housing ladder was a failure of the conservative message. May described the housing crisis as her domestic priority and laid out plans to scrap the cap on the amount councils can borrow to build new houses, but more will need to be done to address regional variation in both housing prices and housing availability if the Conservatives are to prove they can maintain a successful social agenda.
While it is clear that May has some new ideas, it will be down to Chancellor Phillip Hammond to find the money for them, suggesting that the Autumn Budget, due on the 29th October, will be one to watch. Hammond has a tricky challenge ahead of him, needing to follow through on his signature promise to eliminate the fiscal deficit, while finding the money to fund the promised NHS budget increase, and freeing up money for the Conservatives to implement the social spending needed to tackle the messages of Jeremy Corbyn. There are indications that some of this money will be found in the form of new taxes, particularly for sectors accused of not paying enough. In his speech, Hammond set out plans to increase taxes for large digital companies, calling for an international approach, but saying that the UK was willing to introduce its own taxes to tackle the problem. While this will likely be a popular measure, Hammond will need to do more to find additional spending money without alienating business or voters. The Spending Review next year will be the key test of whether the Prime Minister’s suggestion that austerity is over, is anything more than warm words.
While May outperformed expectations, the problems that have made her leadership so tenuous remain and will resurface in the coming weeks. Boris Johnson’s fringe speech was widely reported and popular with his pro-Brexit base. Stepping outside his usual Brexit comments to address the housing crisis and May’s record as Home Secretary, it is clear that Johnson is now attempting to position himself as a credible leadership candidate on more issues than just Brexit. This will do little to alter his relatively poor reputation within the parliamentary party but will, in the coming weeks, add to the pressure on May to drop the Chequers agreement. While she gave no indication that she will do so, it is significant that when referring to the UK’s Brexit proposal in her speech, May avoided using the term ‘Chequers’, instead only referring to the content of the proposals. This has been taken as a sign by some that May is altering her stance on Brexit, but it could be a simple rebranding of the agreement to focus on the content of the proposal, rather than the connotations for Brexiteers.
Despite all her promises of a new, centrist party message, May will only get the opportunity to act on her proposals if she can secure a Brexit that can at least pass a parliamentary vote. Finding a deal with the EU and selling it to her party will be no small task, to say nothing of the DUP, SNP and Labour, who have all made it clear that they will vote against any deal that does not align with their interests. A strong speech and promises of better days ahead will not be enough to preserve her position without measurable success in the next few months and clear progress on Brexit at the next EU Summit on 18th October.