1. COUGHING UP BLOOD
“The test of a leader is how you respond when tough times come upon you.” When Theresa May wrote that line in her conference speech, she can never have imagined just how apt it would become. Delivered after a coughing fit that ravaged her voice, it sparked a heartfelt standing ovation from a Tory faithful that was desperate for her to just get to the end of her keynote address.
Her husband rushed on and gave her a long hug. As one former party insider put it to me: “We were all Philip May at the end”. But the whole incident, as well as the P45 protest, was a brutally symbolic reminder of this Prime Minister’s political mortality. And the question everyone is asking is, just when will the end now come for May’s premiership?
Anyone with a heart would feel for a politician whose vocal chords were sabotaged by a nasty cold and a heavy schedule of media interviews. The PM’s dogged persistence won her sympathy from her own tribe. But politics is a cruel old business and the Tory leader who wanted to ‘crush the Saboteurs’ on Brexit, is now crushed by possibly indelible perceptions that she’s a hapless, accident-prone leader. Margaret Thatcher was famously feared and respected, though rarely liked. May is now in danger of being neither liked, feared nor respected, merely pitied.
The way she at least stuck to her task today could be the saving grace that sees her limp through to Brexit in 2019, just as she limped to the end of her speech. May’s supporters will also take heart that Boris’s implosion highlights the lack of a credible alternative. However, unlike Labour, the Tory party are experts at deploying either regicide or fierce loyalty, whenever each is needed most for their greater survival. And some of her sharkier MPs now smell blood in the water, even more than when she suffered the self-inflicted wound of a snap election. The idea that she could last until the next election in 2022 looks as dead as the meat in George Osborne’s freezer bags.
Tory MPs and activists used to have a joke about their sexual infidelities when in Blackpool and Bournemouth: “It’s AC/DC. ‘At Conference, Doesn’t Count’.” May and her No10 team will be hoping that the distractions of today will be remembered only as a conference indiscretion that don’t count in the long term. But that verdict is out of her hands.
2. TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE
May’s very first words took us back in time to a gentler period in her life, telling us that “a little over 40 years ago in a small village in Oxfordshire, I signed up to be a member of the Conservative party”. It felt odd for a Prime Minister to start off with her party allegiance rather than focus on the national interest, and it became clear this just a preamble to her May-a Culpa, reassuring the faithful she really was sorry for her snap election blunder.
There were implicit apologies too for David Cameron (his image flashed on screen) and George Osborne. The former Chancellor was praised for his Northern Powerhouse, an idea she initially shunned, before minister Jim O’Neill quit in frustration. What struck me most was the fact that she didn’t namecheck anyone in her Cabinet, singling out only Ruth Davidson for lavish praise.
Most of all she wants to wind the clock back to her original ‘burning injustices’ speech on the steps of No10 in July 2016. The problem was that the PM seemed to veer between the self-confidence of her pre-June 8 self and the humbled post-June 8 self. She conceded “our party’s ability to deliver [aspiration] is in question”, but also bragged “We got 2.3 million more votes, and achieved our highest vote share in 34 years.” Just as Len McCluskey famously declared in Brighton last week that Labour had ‘won’ the election, May had difficulty accepting that she’d lost her majority - and authority.
The real time-travel issue is how the Government now pans out over the rest of the Parliament. Underlining the flat and uneasy mood in Manchester, Tory MPs in the bars and cafes have been pondering two depressing scenarios. Is May like John Major in 1993, facing years of Europe trouble and impending electoral defeat? Or is she like Gordon Brown in 2008, clinging on in the bunker in the hope the polls will turn. The truth may be neither, but she desperately needs a period of calm, practical government. As one centrist Labour MP put it to me (even before the speech): “The most depressing thing is the Tories right now make Corbyn and Milne look competent”.
3. LION THROUGH HIS TEETH
One former minister (who is determined to oust May) told me this week that all party leaders’ conferences should be judged by the bookends of their Marr Show performance on Sunday and their big speech performance on Wednesday. May had a bit of a ’mare on Marr and even more of a ’mare in her speech, so it’s possible that the list of letter-signing MPs who want to get rid of her has a few more numbers tonight.
Yet this conference has been bookended too by Boris Johnson. His weekend ‘red lines’ on Brexit meant that the start of the four-day gathering was overshadowed by questions about his ‘unsackability’. And the final day began with demands for him to be fired for his crass remarks about Libyan “dead bodies”. Yet while May apologised to her party today, Boris did not.
He already lacked the numbers for a leadership bid, but the mood has undeniably turned against Johnson. Even Brexiteers willing to give him the benefit of the doubt were furious with his latest antics. Both David Davis and Michael Fallon had digs at him in their platform speeches. Liam Fox said every minister had to stick to the script. Party members were appalled at the reckless disregard he had for their leader and MPs are so angry that the backbench 1922 Committee is expected to make its feelings clear next week.
Johnson’s speech on Tuesday, a curious mix of Dr Pangloss and Dr Feelgood, was boycotted by every single fellow Cabinet minister, apart from Michael Gove. May was pointedly absent (not risking TV cameras poised for her every reaction, nor any patronising mateyness from Boris). One senior minister told me he went for a doze. The speech itself was undermined by Johnson’s addiction to playing the jester. He attempted to roar the activists into life, yet his retreat on Brexit policy left him looking like the cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz. For those upset at his £350m/NHS promise, and those keen to oust May quickly, he resembles not so much the Lion King as the Lyin’ King.
Those who know Boris best have found events of the past few days familiar. Not just because they’ve seen the circus before, but because they know that talk of him having any leadership ‘strategy’ is way off the mark. “If only there was a plan!” one insider told me. At the end of this strange few days, it is Amber Rudd who has emerged as more of a contender than Boris. The way she nudged him into standing up for the PM was a vignette that spoke volumes.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch those Great Expectorations (nice work, Guardian vids team) again in full.
4. A CORBYN COPY?
Even if there’s something wrong with the Tory messenger, was there anything wrong with her message today? Mayism certainly felt like Milibandism as she took up the former leader’s mantle on energy price caps, more council housing and even his own previous conference speech references to “the British Dream” or “the British promise”.
Thanks to her coughing fit, May’s “British Dream” obviously turned nightmarish in PR terms, but the very concept felt like an alien way to sum up her central argument that she’s the leader to renew our island nation’s history of aspiration and innovation. Brits hate Americanised concepts as much as they distrust putting flagpoles in their front garden. And in Manchester, where the council (still without a single Tory councillor) copes with cuts and where homelessness is more visible than ever, the dream seemed to belong to another land.
On policy more generally, it is Jeremy Corbyn not Ed Miliband who has haunted this conference. The Labour leader has undeniably led the debate on tuition fees, housing, public sector pay (strangely absent from this week, was that Hammond’s big item put back to the Budget?) and even opt-out organ donation (which May backed today). One of the PM’s most telling remarks came at the fringe where she conceded Corbyn had “changed” Britain’s political consensus. All of which made her attack lines on him sound even more jarring and counterproductive.
The details of the policy announcements looked thinner on closer examination (housing groups are sceptical, energy firms want to know more than a mere bill). Of course, there’s nothing wrong in politics in stealing your opponent’s best ideas, or making U-turns. David Cameron executed several handbrake turns under the Coalition, only to get elected in 2015. But May faces twin constraints on numbers: the lack of a Parliamentary majority and the lack of spare cash will both make any policy solutions difficult to navigate.
There’s a further difficulty too. Governments often lose elections more than Oppositions win them and this is a Government in its seventh year. In 2022, it will be in its 12th year. All week, ministers trotted out the mantra that the voters always turn to the Tories to clean up the financial mess and ballooning deficit left by Labour. But the political cycle is driven by another factor: the voters also tend to turn to Labour when they tire of a Conservative ‘compassion deficit’. Whoever replaces May has to buck that trend.
5. THE LOST DECAYED
What cast a shadow over Manchester as much as Boris was the spectre of the Corbynite youth vote. Plenty of fringes and MPs’ private discussions were focused on the widespread angst among Conservatives about their lack of appeal to the under 30s, and coldness of the under 45s.
The smell of decay doesn’t just linger around May’s premiership, it wafts from the membership stats that show over half of the party is older than 65 and only one in 20 is aged 18-24. And as HuffPost revealed this week, the Conservatives’ age-old problem with its student wing (which dates back to Norman Tebbit closing down the Federation of Conservative Students) is prompting it to completely sever links from its university groups. Justice Minister Philip Lee was right that ‘natural wastage’ of dying Tory pensioners poses a real threat to the party’s electoral viability.
It’s not all bad news on the youth front. MPs like Ben Bradley and Kemi Badenoch were wisely chosen, together with young Scots, to introduced May today. And activist Louis Mosley from Shoreditch made an impressive platform speech on Tuesday, arguing passionately for more mental health provision and against terms such as ‘Loony Left’.
Yet the dearth of young people in Manchester was obvious. And it was the young fogey himself, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who put his finger on part of the problem: a lack of party democracy. Tory members have little say over policy, have to clap like North Koreans at platform speeches and are locked out by MPs from choosing candidates for party leader. One of the greatest ironies of this week was the man who joked about his age (“I was young once, I wasn’t very good at it”) is the very Tory politician attracting ‘Moggmentum’ of his own.
Read a snap analysis of May’s Conference Speech HERE.