The Conservative party conference took place in Manchester between the 1st and 4th of October. Theresa May tried, and failed, to reassert her authority over the party, a party which is divided over Brexit, down in the polls and desperately trying to avoid a leadership contest, something which appears to be becoming increasingly difficult.
The Conservatives Party Conference
The main part of the conference that was widely covered by the media was May’s speech, which was portrayed as being disastrous. Admittedly, her key points were at times overshadowed by the chain of mishaps that occurred during the speech. When comedian Lee Nelson got up on stage and handed her a P45, a form given to workers when they get the sack, it was easy to remember this and not her promise to place a cap on energy bills. May’s coughing fit distracted us from her plans to improve the way mental health issues are dealt with. And, of course, it was difficult to focus on her plea for party unity as letters from the slogan on the wall behind her began dropping off one by one.
Many, including several within the party, see this as a reflection of her incompetence. However, it is important not to ignore the key messages she delivered. May promised to end “rip-off energy prices” with a new cap on bills (although very little detail was given regarding the number of people it will cover and whether it will be an absolute cap or a limit in rises). She also announced that she would launch a review of the Mental Health Act with a view to updating the law, looking into how the NHS and other public services deal with people suffering with mental health problems. Without directly referring to Boris Johnson’s recent attempts to publicly undermine her Brexit policy, May called for the party to “shape up”, saying that what mattered was not petty internal conflicts but how the government served the British people.
It has been reported that the average age of Conservative party members is 72. Fewer than one in four under-30s backed the Tories in the June election, and the party lost every age group under 45. Therefore, it perhaps came as no surprise that youth issues came at the heart of the Tory conference, with May reforming reforms in two key areas: university and housing. The party announced that they would freeze fees for university students at their current level and lift the earnings threshold at which graduates must begin to repay their loans from £21,000 to £25,000. With regards to housing, May promised to provide more money to the Help to Buy equity-loan scheme which helps young people get onto the housing ladder, as well as increasing the budget for “affordable” (state-subsidised) housing.
Whilst these are positive changes for young people, it is difficult to ignore how insignificant these changes seem in comparison to the policies proposed by Labour. Where the Conservative party says they will freeze tuition fees, Labour say that tuition fees should be abolished altogether; where the Conservative party promises to build 10,000 extra affordable houses a year, Labour’s manifesto promised “at least 100,000 council and housing association homes per year”. Are Labour’s proposals unrealistic, or do the Conservatives need to be doing more for young people?
Theresa May is desperately clinging onto her position as PM – Tory MPs believe that the party is too weak to endure another leadership contest but can she last for much longer? The conference has undoubtedly weakened her position, and the next couple of years of Brexit are going to be tough for even the strongest and most stable of governments, something which the Tory party does not currently appear to be. The party made it clear that they are trying to win back the support of younger generations, but will May be able to deliver on her promises and are they enough?
By Lucy Higginbotham