Theresa May swapped her position as Prime Minister for Dancing Queen at her speech to round off the Conservative Party Conference on Wednesday. To applause and cheers, the Prime Minister launched into her speech – marking the end of the four day conference which began on Sunday 30th September. The Conference will surely remain in the minds of many members of the Party and of the political community long after its finish. In and amongst all of the conflict regarding Brexit, significant reforms were announced, some of which were potent in May’s speech on the final day.
The Conservative Party Conference 2018
Sunday opened to anger concerning security matters – the Conservative Party Conference (CPC) app had a security glitch which allowed members to access the accounts of their fellows with only their email address. Brandon Lewis, the Conservative Party Chairman, was subjected to this anger,at the ‘Challenge the Chairman’ event on the afternoon of the opening day. Other speakers included the defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, who announced reforms such as pension scheme changes to former service personnel which fell onto welcoming ears in the conference hall. However, Brexit was never far away, and this dominated the discussion both within the conference and the media covering it.
Monday saw the development of an insult to May,from the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson through the release of an image of Johnson surrounded by what appeared to be wheat (although this was later identified as grass). This nod to the remarks of the PM when questioned as to her naughtiest activities as a child was interpreted by many to be an attack on the Prime Minister, which could forewarn a leadership bid, and which the Chancellor Philip Hammond rebuked with his statement that ‘Johnson will never be PM’. Other than the bad behaviour in fields, Monday saw the Defence Secretary refuse to apologise for his statement to Russia that she should ‘shut up and go away’ – with the consolation that the Defence Secretary had merely been acting in line with his nature. Hammonds’ Speech on Monday was the most significant event of the day with the Chancellor pushing a ‘pro-Chequers’ agenda, although with a very remain emphasis. Hammond emphasized the fact that Europe remained the geographical neighbours of the UK, and that trade links were vital to ensure that British business was able to survive post-Brexit. “Europe remains, by far, our biggest market. And after 45 years of membership, Britain’s economy has shaped itself around that fact” conveyed the Chancellor to the effect as highlighted above. Hammond marked himself out as a member of the Chequers loyalist movement during his speech and pledged his support to the Prime Minister. In terms of economic planning Hammond stated that he was to continue the period of austerity to ‘maintain fiscal firepower’ in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Tuesday saw one of the most contentious events of the conference, a speech given by Boris Johnson. The day opened with Theresa May undermining the statements of the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, when he referred to the EU in terms of the former Soviet Union. May stated that this was an inappropriate manner for the EU to be thought of amidst of wide-ranging anger from EU diplomats, such as Donald Tusk, the President of the EU Council. Prior to the speech given by Johnson, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid gave his speech in the Main Hall, whereby he stated that he was considering the capping of low-skilled workers in favour of higher-skilled professions. Javid stated that he was ‘optimistic’ when challenged by a journalist, the fact that Javid’s father, an immigrant from Pakistan, would have been denied entry to the nation under the regime he had proposed. The Confederation for British Industry (CBI) responded to with “The Minister’s proposals for a new system have taken a wrong turn. By dismissing the importance of low-skilled workers to the UK economy, the government risks harming businesses and living standards now and in the future”. At lunchtime, Boris Johnson walked onto the stage of Hall One. He dispelled any rumours of a leadership bid, referring to Hammond’s remark that he would never be leader as the ‘only true prediction the Treasury has ever made’. Johnson then continued to lay out what many thought of as a manifesto bid- citing the importance of the free market, and gaining applause with his praise of the economic theories of Thatcher which may indicate that his former remark was not entirely true. On Brexit, Johnson delivered a similar rhetoric as before – the idea of Chucking Chequers, and lobbying for the Canada +++ deal; which he had contested in previous Telegraph articles. Various political commentators, such as the Brexit-supporting Iain Dale, stated that there was ‘nothing new’ in what Johnson had to say.
Wednesday was the final day of the speech, and saw May give her final speech to conference. Prior to her entrance, the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox QC was employed as hype-man, a role which he performed spectacularly in the eyes of many. May entered the stage at lunchtime, to ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’ – a bit of a surprise to say the least. After some quips concerning letters falling off of walls and coughing – a nod to the previous Party Conference in 2017, May launched into her speech. May started with a call for unity and for calm in the political sphere, citing the abuse of Diane Abbott as an example of political emotion taken too far. This was seen by many as an olive branch to the Labour Party to support Chequers in any future parliamentary vote; to bolster the Tory line in the event of defectors on the Brexit wing of the Parliamentary Conservative Party, although was angrily responded to by Abbott, who stated that the Conservatives had been the instigators of much of the insult levied against her. May continued on her defence that her Chequers deal was appropriate to avoid hard borders between Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland, in addition to the fact that this enabled the retention of parliamentary sovereignty, and frictionless trade – delivering on the result of the referendum, the lines which she had boasted since the deal was formed in July. Besides the usual defence of Chequers, May announced some significant changes in policy. The ending of the cap on council borrowing for a housing budget, for instance; was welcomed by the Local Government Association as ‘fantastic’; in addition to the fact that May announced that the ‘end of austerity is in sight’ – although this was in contrast somewhat to the words of the Chancellor on Monday. May ended her speech with triumph, when joined by her husband, Philip May.
Conclusion and overall interpretations:
Overall, the Conservative Party conference was the battleground over Brexit, between Boris Johnson, and the acolytes of the ERG, and those who supported Chequers. This battle was decidedly won by May, who dominated headlines with her speech, not least due to the dancing performed at the beginning – which pushed Johnson from the public eye, a key victory for May in the battle for the hearts and minds of MPs, and Tory members. May was roundly congratulated for her speech, as effective and inspiring, which is a crucial conclusion for the Prime Minister. Other than this conflict, the Conference was as to be expected, policy announcements, defences of statements made and a tightened post-Brexit immigration policy. Other policy proposals such as the end of caps on borrowing have incensed many to greater levels of support for the Party, and ensured that Brexit, for once, was not the headline act at the Conference. This has not saved the PM however – rhetoric only goes so far in such a contentious matter, and the real crunch for May will be when parliament votes on the Final Brexit Deal, when May returns for the earmarked Summit with other EU leaders later this year, although the Conference and the support of her cabinet in the public eye, has certainly gained her time. I can’t stop humming ABBA now either.