APCO director, Leon Cook, looks back at a turbulent week at the Conservative Party Conference.
As we descended on Manchester for the annual Conservative Party conference, a tremendous amount of speculation focused on two things; could the party membership forgive Number 10 for the surprising and disappointing election campaign; and would Prime Minister Theresa May be able to quell the ‘noisy neighbours’ inside the Cabinet already lining themselves up for the top job post-Brexit.
To a certain extent both of these were achieved this week, but that is not the enduring memory delegates will take from conference. Instead, delegates will remember witnessing one of the most difficult political speeches in living memory.
The Prime Minister struggled throughout the speech, which had been heralded as the most important of her political career, with an enduring cough that at times made her inaudible. There was visible concern on the faces of her Cabinet colleagues. Most alarmingly, a prankster comedian somehow managed to find his way into the hall and approached the Prime Minister mid speech, handing her a P45 form (the hallmark of unemployment in the UK) commenting that the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has asked him ‘to give it to her.’
Notwithstanding the security concerns of how someone could get so close to the Prime Minister, the incident will serve as an enduring image of a conference where discussion in the bars and restaurants centred on one issue only; how long can Theresa May survive?
The Big Beast of the party, Boris Johnson, has been perceived by many as disloyal for using newspaper articles to set out his plans and thinking for a post-Brexit Britain and his candidacy as captain of the ship.
This has not gone down well with Cabinet colleagues with Defence Secretary Michael Fallon commenting with obvious intent that ‘no-one, including me, is unsackable’. And yet Boris remains box office viewing. This was demonstrated by his speech to conference, with his talent to entertain and deliver a speech that is almost second to none. But all too often interventions by the Foreign Secretary are perceived as unhelpful, as was the case when making comments at a fringe meeting on Libya that were deemed by many as ‘unacceptable’ in the wake of the death and destruction witnessed there. The media and commentators have an agenda with Boris and love to cause mischief.
Conferences are supposed to be about momentum and seizing the narrative. Yet a common theme throughout this week has been the visible absence of policy initiatives and an explanation of what happens next. All too often ministers stepped onto the stage platform to explain all the reasons why Labour and Jeremy Corbyn’s policies of ‘the 1970’s and nationalisation’ shouldn’t be trusted and what it would mean for the economy.
While it is astute to point out the deficiencies in your opponent’s policies and economic plan, the Conservatives still ‘won’ the election and therefore they need to be much bolder and clearer on how this government will take the country through Brexit and beyond.
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier were put on warning this week that they should prepare for all eventualities with one particular line in the Theresa May’s speech saying that, despite the offer of a deep and special partnership, ‘whatever the outcome of the negotiations’ our future is bright.
The government has let it be known at conference that it is preparing for a ‘no deal’ scenario which – in their minds at least – will sharpen the focus of their European counterparts. This will be alarming to business and some delegates that work both in London and Brussels, who have spoken of the disconnect between the two sides and the uncertainty that business face with contingency planning. Despite these huge uncertainties, the government does now expect a deal to be completed, following the recent fourth round of negotiations. The Prime Minister today went out of her way to extend a hand of friendship to EU nationals that already live in the UK and ensure that they know they are valued and that the UK government wants them to stay.
The language used by ministers this week as been one of prosperity and optimism. They have highlighted the importance of free markets and enterprise to allow the government to pay for its spending commitments. The Trade Secretary Liam Fox has talked all week about the global opportunities in the new modern era as businesses look East.
The Department for International Trade now has an ever-growing network of trade specialists tasked with hashing out trade deals with old and new partners. This may be of some comfort to those outside the EU but it will not placate the worries of those with key operations in the UK who do not know what market access looks like for the UK with the EU post 2019.
The big announcements this week have been few and far between, with no major new infrastructure projects. The marquee announcement today being the promise of an additional £2bn in affordable housing and a commitment to ensure developers don’t ‘land bank’ sites. Furthermore, the government has promised to continue to invest in the Northern Powerhouse scheme (the brainchild of May’s nemesis, former Chancellor George Osborne) to ensure communities in the North aren’t left behind.
Additionally, the government has promised the creation of an additional 5,000 NHS apprenticeship schemes; a review of the Mental Health Act; a freeze on university tuition fees and changes to the rate and timing of when the debt needs to start to be re-paid; the creation of 100 new free schools in each parliamentary year; and a commitment to a first-class education system and technical training for 16 to 19-year-olds.
These are worthy policy initiatives but not something that business, particularly big business, will feel much comforted by. The most concerned businesses today will be the big six domestic energy providers, with Theresa May taking a leaf out of the former Labour leader Ed Miliband’s playbook by promising to regulate the energy markets and draft a bill introducing a price cap on energy bills. Many will see this as the antithesis of free market economics and an act of state intervention.
Despite all the above, the Conservative Party has spent the week talking about a new ‘global prosperous Britain’ as confirmed in May’s speech, praising the wealth creators, the innovators and entrepreneurs in the UK. Their taxes ‘fund the things we want to do’. The Conservatives are obviously trying to put clear ground between themselves and Labour by reaffirming their commitment to be the party of business.
While the words have been delivered, time will now quickly tell if the government is indeed united, whether the Prime Minister can command authority and if the Conservatives can get on with the job of ‘governing’.
The cherry on the conference cake this week was some of the lettering behind the Prime Minister falling off the conference stage backdrop as she spoke. Hopefully this is not an omen of things to come for the government or a metaphor for the Brexit negotiations literally facing and falling over the cliff edge.
Leon Cook is a director in APCO’s London office. He provides senior UK public affairs counsel to APCO’s corporate and government clients.
Picture credit: Craig Whitehead