Theresa May jumps over a low bar

The PM avoided disaster in her conference speech, which is all she could hope for

October 03, 2018
May dances her way onto the stage. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images
May dances her way onto the stage. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

Compared with her calamitous speech to the Conservative conference last year, Theresa May’s effort this year was largely free of incident. There were coughs, but no coughing fits, no collapsing sets, no P45s. The only spectacle of note was a slightly cringe-worthy entrance by the prime minister during which she approximated a dance to the tune of Abba’s Dancing Queen.

The comparisons with last year set a very low bar for May to surmount. That is better for her than the more relevant comparisons, which should be with Jeremy Corbyn’s speech to the Labour conference last week, and Boris Johnson’s barnstormer at a Tory fringe meeting yesterday. Both delivered passionate and compelling, if hugely contrasting, visions of where the country should be heading. May’s speech today was more workman-like, albeit competent.

It spoke to the themes of security, freedom and opportunity in a country that works for everyone, with several policy announcements. There was a long section on the NHS and a promised strategy on improving early detection of cancer. On housing—“the biggest domestic policy challenge of our generation”—May pledged to lift the cap on local authorities’ ability to borrow for house-building. She called for markets to work better and to be reformed, not abandoned, as Labour would do. She acknowledged the sacrifices people had made during the years of austerity and confirmed that fuel duty would be frozen in this month’s budget.

While the speech was wide-ranging, it was somewhat lacking in vision, aside from an airy promise that “our best days lie ahead of us.” Perhaps a grand vision would have been hubristic given that serious questions remain over how long May will be in Downing Street. This morning, the Conservative MP, James Duddridge confirmed he had written to the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee, Graham Brady, calling for a vote of no confidence in May as Tory leader. It was not exactly the most auspicious prelude to the prime minister’s address. The reason, of course, was Brexit, the issue that will define May’s tenure.

The section of May’s speech on Brexit was bound to be the focus of attention. It came after Johnson’s clarion call to Brexiteers yesterday to “chuck Chequers,” the prime minister’s proposed outline of a Brexit deal with the EU. Conservative activists are extremely sceptical of May’s plan to adopt a common rulebook on goods and agriculture with the EU, a position Brexiteers dismiss as “vassalage,” or Brexit in name only. May opted for a cautious approach, restating what she saw as the advantages of her Brexit policy, promising it would allow Britain to “take back control of our borders, our law and our money.” But she repeatedly referred to it as “our proposal,” not “Chequers.” It was the policy that dared not speak its name and represented an acknowledgement by the prime minister that the brand had become toxic. That’s not a promising starting point. Her words drew only polite applause.

She earned a better reception when she dismissed calls for a second referendum, insisting that “we had the people’s vote and people chose to leave.” May said a second referendum would be a “politicians’ vote,” an attempt to overturn the result of the first. This was perhaps the most confidently-delivered part of the speech, as she knew her audience would be with her. But it ended with a warning: that the forlorn pursuit of the “perfect Brexit” would risk leading to a second referendum, even a general election, and that the party needed to come together. To emphasise that point, May made some pointed criticisms of Labour under Corbyn and the problems that would beset the country if the opposition got into power.

If the aim of May’s speech were to rally her party behind her Brexit plans, it must be considered a failure. In reality, its aims were much more limited. With Brexit negotiations set to continue and an EU summit due later this month, the prime minister wanted to get through this conference with her authority intact. Loud heckling in the hall would have badly undermined that, but it was absent—in part, perhaps, because of the disappearance of the word “Chequers,” which could otherwise have ignited discontent.

But none of this changes the fact that May faces enormous difficulties. The EU has already dismissed her proposals. A significant number of her own backbenchers are hostile too. There are serious doubts about whether she has the numbers to get a Chequers-based Brexit deal through parliament, let alone a “Chequers minus” deal that was watered down by further compromises. Labour has pledged to vote against any deal based on Chequers. But even if the opposition changed its mind, could the deal really be forced through in the teeth of opposition from up to 80 Conservative MPs? It would split the party and probably lead to the fall of the government. But these are battles that lie ahead. Today’s speech was designed to ensure that May was not too badly damaged as she prepares for them.