Five things to know from Conservative Conference

17th September 2020

With the Conservative Party’s Conference taking place on the doorstop of Citypress’ Manchester HQ, our Corporate Affairs Director Rory Fletcher shares the most important insights from this year’s annual gathering.

1. In Manchester, it doesn’t rain, it pours: whilst the blame for much of the Prime Minister’s recent woes can be laid at her own door, it was difficult not to feel sympathy as she spluttered her way through her keynote speech, was besieged by stunt “comedian” Simon Brodkin, and saw her own set crumble around her — ensuring that the policy announcements on affordable housing and energy price cap were entirely overshadowed. Yet, even though May could have done nothing to prevent these, for a PM looking to shift the narrative away from her perceived weakness and unsuitability for the job, this speech was about as disastrous as it was possible to imagine.

2. Energy and morale were low: Unless an event had the pulling power of Jacob Rees-Mogg or Ruth Davidson, it was clearly a bit of a challenge to fill rooms and drive interest. This isn’t particularly surprising considering the outcome of June’s election and the open warfare between sections of the party in evidence, but the comparison with the carnival atmosphere of Labour’s conference was stark and it is clear where the current political momentum lies (pun slightly!). That said, with little chance of a return to the polls for the foreseeable future, there is plenty of time for the political weather to change.

3. Brexit remains all-consuming: It could be guaranteed that delegates or speakers would find a way to shoehorn a diatribe on the merits, or otherwise, of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU into almost any event, regardless of the topic. Yet, the divisions within the party remain clear, with little apparent agreement over the need for, or length of, a transition period. Former Tesco Board Director and Trade Minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe summed up the mood of many in the party when she said that despite supporting Remain at the referendum, her opinion is now “GOWIT!” get on with it”.

4. The party knows it needs to broaden its appeal: As was shown by the number of events focused on rebalancing the UK economy – recognition that support outside of traditional heartlands will be crucial at the next election. Whilst the Chancellor’s £300m commitment to ensuring future rail connectivity in the North was welcomed, much more will be expected. Speaking at a fringe event Neil O’Brien MP (former head of Policy Exchange and Special Adviser to Theresa May on the Economy and Industrial Strategy) indicated that the devolution agenda would continue and that we should expect to see more detail in the Industrial Strategy White Paper which will be published around the Budget. Those beyond the Watford Gap wait with bated breath.

5. Have we reached “peak Boris”?: This was the view of one “gleeful” Cabinet Minister (as shared by Sky Political Editor Faisal Islam) following a subdued speech from the Foreign Secretary. His reiteration of Brexit “red lines” earlier in the week had led to public rebukes from a number of Cabinet and Parliamentary colleagues, and Johnson seemed to row back when in front of the Conference hall. He then faced further opprobrium after yet another “insensitive use of language”, this time regarding Libya. Yet, there appears little likelihood that one so fond of the limelight will sit too long in the shadows. With May’s efforts to reassert her position being undermined by a catalogue of unfortunate incidents, the Foreign Secretary may once again smell blood. The question will be to what extent his antics over the last week have eroded his own support irreparably.

For more information please contact Rory Fletcher.


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