Only the diehard come to Spring Conference therefore neither large numbers nor fireworks were expected at this year’s Conservative annual gathering in Cardiff.
It would be fair to say that Theresa May has had better weeks on the back of the Chancellor’s National Insurance Contribution budget U-turn and declaration of hostilities from north of the border by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon with regards to a new independence vote.
The cherry on the cake being the unexpected news this morning flowing through the hall that the former Chancellor George Osborne has been appointed editor of London’s national evening paper the Evening Standard. Glorious George has been very busy since being unceremoniously sacked by May last summer raking in private earnings and this latest appointment surely suggests that any notion of his return at some stage to frontline politics has left the building.
All government ministers on parade today were given a strict cheat sheet to speak from; the Union dear boy, the Union. In the words of Andrew Davies, the Conservative leader in the Welsh Assembly; the UK is ‘the greatest family of nations….the union is here to stay.’ One by one they lined up to espouse the importance of this over three-hundred-year relationship and the incredulity of the SNP to suggest its breakup. Without presenting a unified front to the EU, the UK would not be able to achieve the best possible outcome from Brexit negotiations. The Prime Minister Theresa May is acutely aware of the danger posed by the independence vote and does not want to go down in the history books as the PM who ‘lost the Union.’
Another central theme espoused was one of Britain being ‘open for business.’ Liam Fox the International Trade Secretary went out if his way to make the case for the UK becoming the poster child for free trade in the face of unrelenting protectionism around the world, including amongst G7 and G20 countries. What he cleverly tried to do was make the case for what happens if the UK doesn’t get the deal it wants, or any for that matter. Outlining that trade growth from Commonwealth countries was four times that of the EU, and that trade barriers hurt the poorest countries the most, he simultaneously made the case for ‘we’ll manage’ and ‘please give us a trade deal.’ The EU is inclined to make an example of the UK but this would, in his words, be an economic response to a political decision.
Normally at a party conference, ministers would line up to take pot shots at the opposition. Labour was mentioned but twice in speeches this morning. Even more telling, the hapless and much maligned leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, did not feature at all. The Conservative party would pay to keep him in post until the next general election safe in the knowledge that he is the key to a stomping majority victory for them in 2020.
The Conservatives truly believe they now solely occupy the centre ground of UK politics which is allowing them to claim to be the party of ‘ordinary working families’ (previously deemed laughable). The recent Copeland by-election win for the Conservatives and fifty thousand new members since July of last year has enhanced the feeling at Conservative Central Office that ‘their message is being heard’ and that scores of previously unwinnable seats in the North are now up for grabs.
In accordance with this the Prime Minister carefully crafted her message; Brexit was a call to change the balance of Britain. Brexit was not just about leaving the EU but about delivering a more equitable society. The former Prime Minister David Cameron once trod this path and unveiled to much fanfare in 2010 his idea of a ‘Big Society.’ It never resonated with the public and was shelved relatively quickly. Theresa May however has picked up the baton. The term ‘Fairer Society’ was mentioned more times than I care to count this morning and reinforces the speech she gave outside parliament when first becoming party leader and Prime Minister. She wants to shape a party and society that is for everyone of every background. Those on the left would argue that her new Grammar school policy of allowing the build of new selective schools runs counter to this. In her mind, it is a question of choice and giving parents a more egalitarian future based on talent and hard work, not wealth and postcode.
Not much for corporates to chew on at conference this year though the Prime Minster did send a warning shot across the bow of energy companies. There has been a 158% rise in energy prices in the last 15 years and in her words, it is clear that those on the lowest incomes enjoyed the worst tariffs. Expect to see swift government measures to counteract this in the coming month. The Prime Minister has talked a lot about operating in the national interest. It’s fair to say that the Big Six energy companies are about to feel exactly what that means.