It is fair to say that both of the main Parties were facing significant questions on unity and leadership heading into this conference season. The Conservatives in Manchester this week were far more successful in insulating the atmosphere of their annual get together from these challenges. It simply didn’t have the feel of a Party that has just suffered a record run of Commons defeats, has ejected 21 of its own MPs and with personal scandals dogging the Prime Minister at every turn.
The mood of delegates was cautiously upbeat, helped by a focussed set of policy announcements designed to appeal to voters. Chancellor Sajid Javid and Home Secretary Priti Patel used their speeches to unveil new spending commitments on buses, broadband, the living wage and criminal sentencing with other ministers dispatched to echo these points across the fringe circuit and the broadcast studios. Given the Prime Minister also talked about tax cuts in his speech there is now a potential criticism of the Party’s commitment to fiscal discipline, but it isn’t a point likely to land effectively (fairly or unfairly) as long as Jeremy Corbyn remains Labour leader.
However, you couldn’t completely ignore the broader challenging context. David Gauke and Dominic Grieve were both in attendance and speaking at fringe events. Gauke for example noted his peculiar situation as a member of the Conservative Party and an MP, but not a Conservative MP. They present a dilemma to the leadership; their steadfast opposition to no deal has not changed, but in all other respects they remain very much Conservatives to their core and aligned with much of the Prime Minister’s domestic agenda. Many within the Party would welcome a mechanism to bring them back into the fold.
On Brexit, the line is clear, if far from detailed: ‘Get it done’. The electoral strategy is also clear – seek to unite the leave vote and take the Labour Party on in its traditional heartlands as the true party of Brexit, while offering investment in public services and infrastructure and a strong position on law and order. How far they need to advance into Labour territory will depend on how well the Conservatives can fight a rear-guard action against the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party.
There are clearly some sceptics of this approach with some moderate conservatives concerned about the Party’s long term challenge with younger voters and concerned that the Brexit rhetoric could undermine its ability to remain a broad church. But Johnson has a vocal support base among local associations, the youth wing of the Party and still among many MPs who frequently cite the importance of clear leadership and having a clear position on Brexit.
The Prime Minister’s speech itself was a good summation of the conference as a whole. Upbeat, energetic, and optimistic regarding the ‘one nation’ future he hopes to build but without spelling out in any further detail how he intends to navigate the enormous immediate challenge of Brexit. The commitment to delivering Brexit by 31st October remains unchanged, begging a huge unanswered question over how and if the Government will comply with the Benn Act. No explanation has yet been forthcoming as to how they can avoid requesting an extension, despite numerous hints that they have a very cunning plan up their sleeve.
In reality, the most significant story of the day was the Government finally submitting detailed Brexit proposals to the European Commission and remaining member states. Their response will eclipse anything in today’s speech or that emerged from this week’s conference. An agreement to engage further on the details will be a major boost to the Prime Minister, whereas outright rejection will lead straight back to the Benn Act dilemma.
Attention now turns back to Westminster (and Brussels and Dublin when it comes to Brexit). We are still heading towards an election and the battle lines are becoming clearer. If a Brexit deal cannot be delivered, voters will be offered a trio of choices: remain with the Liberal Democrats; leave under a one nation branded Boris Johnson government; or a people’s vote under a Jeremy Corbyn administration that is more interested in fundamentally reforming capitalism.