The time was – some thirty-odd years ago – when the Conservative Party conference gave the impression of being after the Lord Mayor’s show. Conference season would start with the TUC gathering, followed by those of the Liberals and SDP, all building up to the latest episode of the slugfest that was the 1980s Labour Party.
And then would come the predictable, stage-managed dullness of the Tories: a lip-service attack on criminals, another one denouncing the slack moral standards of the poor, Michael Heseltine’s knockabout mockery of socialism, and finally a standing ovation for Margaret Thatcher that lasted almost as long as her speech itself. None of it mattered, none of it excited people, because this wasn’t where power lay, and the real job of the Conservative government was to govern.
Over the last few years, though, a new pattern has emerged. The TUC long since ceased to matter, the Lib Dems are unable to whip up any public interest at all, and Labour has been reduced to an annual relaunch of its leader: first Ed Miliband, now Jeremy Corbyn. The latter made a decent fist of his big speech this year, but – as we noted last week – no one much was paying any attention. Even if you roll them all up together, the others don’t constitute a decent warm-up act for the main event.
Because, unlike the others, the Conservatives do matter. And this year they mattered a great deal. This was Theresa May’s big debut, people have been paying attention and – something that Corbyn’s Labour failed to achieve – she and her party will almost certainly enjoy a post-conference bounce in the polls.
Her closing speech today claimed to be spelling out her vision for the country, which mostly came down to her belief that vision’s a bit overrated really – what counts is action. She’s in favour of ‘fairness and opportunity’, but not as much as she’s in favour of pragmatic politics.
And it’s a very good pitch. Platform speaking isn’t her strong suit, just as the House of Commons isn’t her natural habitat, but that doesn’t matter a great deal. Her style and presentation – which has been much in evidence in the broadcasting studios this week – is intended to be reassuring, mature and responsible. While it’s not going to convince those with a tribal hatred of Tories, it’s going to ring true with many others.
She talked about ‘the quiet revolution’ of the Brexit vote, which may be a conflation of Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘quiet man’ and William Hague’s ‘common-sense revolution’, but is a happier piece of phrase-making than either of those.
She pushed at some slightly unexpected buttons for a Conservative prime minister. She praised the BBC. She denounced economic inequality and ‘international elites’. She even used the phrase ‘working class’ (repeatedly), which is more than Corbyn did last week. In her conference speech thirty years ago, Thatcher appropriated a radical slogan from the 1960s: ‘We Conservatives are returning power to the people.’ May went one better, channelling her inner Sam Cooke: ‘A change is going to come.’*
In purely political terms, it’s been a hugely successful conference, even if much remains completely obscure. The tough business of Brexit is still to happen, Philip Hammond has yet to reveal what kind of chancellor he will really be, and the suspicion is that we’ve been seeing sabre-rattling rather than policy-making.
But what sabre-rattling it’s been. On the one hand, there are promises to borrow money, to increase state intervention in industry, to take action against excessive executive pay and to defend workers’ rights. And on the other, there’s a ramping up of anti-immigration rhetoric, with foreign doctors and students brought onto the agenda, and with the (implied) revival of the BNP/Labour slogan of ‘British jobs for British workers’.
This is May’s play for what she calls the ‘new centre ground’. Which looks very much like it’s intended to annexe large chunks of what used to be Labour’s territory. Assuming that UKIP get round to choosing Steven Woolfe as their new leader (and assuming that he lasts longer than did Diane James, the little-known trivia question), Labour may well find their task harder still and harder.
The Tories are on the prowl, seeking out new policies for the new times, and they’re not much fussed whose manifesto they come from. None of the elements are original. The economic elements wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming from the mouth of a centrist Labour politician a generation ago, while the attack on the ‘sneering’ of ‘politicians and commentators’ is also familiar.
‘We will take on and defeat a liberal elite that has always given more consideration to the rights of criminals than the rights of victims,’ said the leader. ‘Talk about Europe and they call you extreme. Talk about tax and they call you greedy. Talk about crime and they call you reactionary. Talk about asylum and they call you racist. Talk about your nation and they call you Little Englanders.’
Those quotes, of course, came from William Hague’s time as leader, but then no one’s claiming that May was breaking entirely new ground with her speech today. The difference now is that the Conservatives are in power and setting the agenda. ‘We’ve got the whole liberal establishment railing against me,’ boasted Hague. ‘It’s just what I wanted.’ It wasn’t true. Actually he wasn’t considered important to rail against with any enthusiasm. May is.
Because, finally, the unmistakable impression given by the Birmingham conference is that this is a one-party state. It won’t remain so. This too shall pass. And the combination of an economic downturn and a flimsy majority could bring it all crashing down sooner rather than later. But right here, right now, Theresa May’s Conservatives are the Lord Mayor’s show. All on their own. And they’re going to get the plaudits of the crowd.
* And maybe her inner Ted Heath?