Dissecting the Conservative Party Conference: More a trial by combat than a triumph
In the days following the Conservative Party Conference, it certainly seemed as though Mrs May had bought herself enough time to carry the nation through the final stages of the Brexit negotiations and lead us out the other side and onto a new future outside of the EU. But of course, as always with politics, it was too good to be true.
The first body blow came from EU Council President, Donald Tusk. Almost immediately after Conservative Party Conference was over, he tweeted out hinting that Chequers is not the only deal on the table. Instead, the EU was ready to negotiate a trade deal with the UK, something that has been widely accepted as the only realistic option that could be beneficial to both the EU and the UK. Unless you’re Number 10 of course.
But something that was proven during Conference was that there is undeniable push away from Mrs May’s Chequers proposal and toward something like the ‘Plan A Plus’ deal that had been proposed by the Brexiteers a few weeks prior to Conference. The biggest show of this shift at Conference was the event held by Conservative Home and the Blonde Bombshell Boris Johnson.
Boris’ speech was bereft of any real policy ideas or radical new ideas. Instead it was more of a personal parade at which Boris could put some half-baked ideas forward, continuously undercutting May’s Brexit plans but then urging his supporters to support her in her upcoming negotiations.
What seemed like a leadership challenge in the beginning ended up being a rather gripping, albeit disappointing, speech that seemed to be hinting at something far in the distance but could be attainable should May fall, and he is chosen to succeed her.
However, despite its lack of policy, the crowd for Boris’ speech was something to behold with one and a half thousand people queueing for hours to watch him deliver his attack on Chequers. The standing ovation before and after the speech wasn’t too bad either, and even if it was not what everyone was expecting, it certainly delivered a message to Mrs May and Number 10.
To say that Chequers is dead would be an understatement. There is no appetite within the Conservative Parliamentary Party, the Conservative Party membership, or the wider public in general. Instead, the option that is the most palatable to the EU, and to many here who voted leave, is a Free Trade Agreement. Something along the lines of the current EU-Canada trading relationship – a.k.a. ‘Super Canada’ – which would likely steer us clear of economic evisceration under other deals, or no deal, whilst maintaining the mutual relationship that we share with EU member states currently, is something that can be widely applied by both parties, to the benefit of each other.
So, the question thus remains; Why aren’t we doing so? The answer is simple, Mrs May has become too personally invested in the Chequers proposal to row back on it now and see the bigger picture. Although Number 10 can keep trying to reassure MPs and CCHQ keep pushing the material designed to make Chequers seem as though it is the best thing since sliced bread, it was evident at Conference that there was a shifting mood against Chequers.
A telling sign of this was during the PMs speech to Conference on the final day, there was one rather obvious omission from it, something one would expect to be in what is essentially an outline of policy to Conference. Mrs May did not mention Chequers at all during the speech.
Now, this may be reading too much into nothing but for May not to mention a key policy area, one which has rocketed to the top of May’s priorities since it was announced, may show signs that under the rhino hide exterior, May is starting to sense that there is a growing anger amongst all sides at her Chequers proposal.
But this, I feel, was not a smart move. Instead of directly sending a message to those who are directly opposed to the Chequers proposal i.e. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris, David Davis and many others, she instead decided that she would just talk about Brexit in the general sense, as opposed to sticking to her guns and reaffirming the idea that her deal is the only, and the best, deal on the table at the moment.
I am no fan of May as a leader, she lacks the authority to seriously take on the European powerhouses of Merkel and Macron in order to make sure that Britain gets the deal it wants, rather than what the EU say we should want, but the speech that she gave to Conference was a good one, outlining some serious policies which could be aimed squarely at the centre ground in order to stop the march of Jeremy Corbyn’s radical Labour policy.
However, the omission of Chequers from one of the most important speeches of the year for May, is not a sign of strength from the Prime Minister, it is the exact opposite. Conference was a time for May to offer a considerable ultimatum to brexiteer MPs, either back me and my proposal, or you go your own way, boot me out, and risk the whole thing failing spectacularly.
This was not offered and instead it was a largely empty speech, with no ground-breaking ideas to really speak of, and was filled with some jolly little soundbites about “ending austerity” or removing the cap for councils on borrowing to build new homes that were squarely aimed at diverting attention from the elephant in the room.
The result of this was inevitable and almost foreseeable. Mrs May now faces the almost impossible task of negotiating with the EU in the coming weeks to try and get around the impasse that has developed surrounding Chequers and then coming back to Parliament after that to try and sweet talk Tory rebels and opposition MPs into supporting her Brexit plans.
The result of the coming talks between May and the EU are obviously yet to be seen but early warning signs are already coming through with the DUP, who are in a supply and confidence agreement with the Conservatives, threatening to pull their support from the government should the Brexit plans threaten Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.
Mrs May is on perilously thin ice, and there is no sign of a resurgence after Conference. What there are signs of however is a revolt against her Chequers Proposal from all sides of the house, and questions over her future are now more prevalent than ever.