Conservative activists are tired. It has been a long few years with the campaigns they have been fighting; whether it be by-elections, general elections, mayoral elections or referendums. Having lost a majority and uncertainty about Brexit prevalent, the mood at the Conservative Conference was subdued. Indeed, a sign it was quieter was the relative ease with which a drink could be bought in the Midland Hotel! People were looking forward to Theresa May’s speech to rally the troops. Regardless of the prankster, the coughing incident and some issues with the sign – we saw a more personal side to Theresa May. The apology for the election result came at the beginning, taking the blame, and then what followed was reference to her grandmother, her diabetes and mention of the fact that her and Philip have been unable to children. The focus of her speech was on the ‘British dream’, which although vague – does chime well with the rhetoric that she spoke of when first entering Downing Street.
Ideologically, the speech had an inconsistent feel, with the Prime Minister – in line with the theme of the Chancellor’s speech on Monday – singing the praises of free market capitalism, but veering towards more left-wing interventionist policies. However, with the delivery of the speech at times bordering on a tragic farce, little post-speech analysis has focused on its actual policy content. While some feel that her ability to continue and deliver her speech showed resilience, strength and a human side, rumours of letters circulating amongst backbench Tory MPs to encourage her to stand aside have dominated the aftermath of her address.
Outside the main arena, Jacob Rees-Mogg was giving Boris a run for his money in terms of popularity within the party. Our team saw first-hand the long line of people waiting to get a selfie with him and the crowded fringe events that he was involved in caused mayhem for organisers. ‘Mogg Mania’ was truly in the air! Boris kept a low profile at Conference, given his recent attention, which has infuriated many cabinet members and a large section of the party membership. However, his speech saw humour and politics entwine, and sought to encourage people that Brexit is positive and should be seized on. He praised Theresa May (highlighting that she did actually win the general election!) and sought to unite the party.
The fringe events at Conference were – as usual – quite far-reaching. Brexit and discussions around future UK trade were high on the agenda, whilst technology issues also appeared prominent; reflecting the thinking of the party – innovation is the way forward.
The speeches in the main arena from David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson all had similar themes; Brexit is happening, let’s be positive and focus on the future, not the past. Free trade, the importance of investment and the fact we aren’t turning our backs on Europe were points regularly made. David Davis was keen to stress that the UK will continue to be a ‘good European’ post-Brexit. The fringe events were slightly different when it came to discussing Brexit – journalists, academics and EU officials criticised the way the government had conducted itself; in its lack of clarity as to what the UK wants, the bad timing in terms of executing Article 50 (the German elections mean that a government will not be in place until next year) and a general lack of understanding around how the EU is perceived amongst many of its members. Another point that business groups stressed was the need for companies that trade heavily with Europe to engage with the governments of the relative member states to help encourage a positive final deal between the EU and the UK.
In general, many felt that May’s speech in Florence was a turning point, the tone was softer and more contrite. Although the EU had indicated that the UK still needed to go further there had been evidence of a general thawing since the speech in relations between the bureaucrats and negotiators on both side.
A notable theme, both inside the main hall and at the hundreds of jam packed fringe events, was the need for the Conservative Party to re-win the argument between those who support the market economy and those who favour the socialist model of economic management. Indeed, the Chancellor made this the key focus of his address in the conference hall in what was a policy-light speech. Throughout the conference, George Freeman MP, Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board and a key thinker in the party, highlighted the need for Conservative solutions to the growing belief amongst young people that capitalism and the free market was failing them and had little to offer their generation.
As has been the case with recent Conservative Conferences, tech featured prominently. Culture Secretary, Karen Bradley MP, announced the imminent publication (next week) of the Internet Safety Strategy, which is intended to tackle abuse and bullying on social media. Perhaps more interestingly, tech was one of the most dominant themes in the Home Secretary’s speech. Amber Rudd: announced plans for stricter sentences for those who repeatedly view extremist videos; called for internet companies to ‘act now and honour their moral obligations’ regarding online extremism; and announced investment in new ‘Project Arachnid’ technology to automatically identify and remove online child sexual abuse imagery. Additionally, Rudd cast further uncertainty on the future of end-to-end encryption in the UK at a fringe event where she also acknowledged that she isn’t an expert in the field.
Our team noticed a relatively small number of health fringe events this year and the topic did not feature heavily in Manchester. However, there were a small number of lively panels on subjects such as the financial sustainability of the NHS. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP gave a fairly well-received presentation style speech in the main hall, with charts on NHS performance featuring alongside his headline announcement of 5,000 extra nurse training spaces per year.
The main topic in this sector at conference was the issue of capping energy bills. A surprise inclusion of the Prime Minister’s cough-ridden speech, May reintroduced the Conservative manifesto pledge of ‘enabling’ Ofgem to cap energy prices. In reality, the Government is reluctant to introduce a cap – instead trying to force the market and regulator to act themselves. It was interesting to note at fringe events prior to the PM’s announcement that BEIS Secretary, Greg Clark MP, and Climate Change Minister, Claire Perry MP, highlighted the reduction in domestic energy bills over the past decade due to increased energy efficiency.