What to expect from the Tory Conference?
The Tories head into conference excited and optimistic in the main, albeit with a discontented few in the margins. Following a Labour conference, which suggests Her Majesty’s Opposition is destined for a long, cold period in Opposition under Comrade Corbyn, the Tories will sense they have the opportunity over the remainder of this Parliament, and probably the next, to progress their agenda.
May seems poised to deliver a truer conservative vision than under Cameron’s premiership; she brings a more classically conservative approach, but mixes this with genuine social justice, a greater interventionist industrial appetite and a gentler take on austerity.
We should expect Brexit to dominate the idle chatter in the Hyatt bar, as the Party grapples with its vision for Brexit, and members reflect upon the slow progress across the three lead departments for ‘Brexiting’.
The headline moment?
The front page picture of conference is likely to be a pair of killer, animal print heels – but the story will focus on May’s conference speech. Her predecessor was a commanding public speaker, and inevitable comparisons will be unfavorable (and undeserved). Her serious, more thoughtful Government approach, contrasted with the whimsical and sycophantic approach of her predecessor should see her through.
She will not be helped by a Chancellor who similarly lacks that ‘wow’ factor – so expect Boris to make more than one appearance to keep the troops in good spirits.
Meanwhile some new faces have entered Cabinet. This will be a chance for them to cut their teeth in the maelstrom of conference, and hope they survive unscathed.
Aims for conference?
Using the Labour conference as a benchmark, many Conservatives will simply be hoping for a non-event. A conference of quiet optimism, competence and unity. Three months after May formed her Cabinet, the conference will hope to see policy ideas coming through in the areas of industrial strategy, infrastructure, and of course foreign policy. They will probably be disappointed.
May might look to make a centre ground grab, to allure moderate Labour voters, sticking the knife further into Labour’s hopes of winning an election. It is probable that she will lead on her brief leadership contest pledge to curb executive pay. The party will also hope to extend an olive branch to centrist UKIP members, by heralding the EU referendum as a point of departure from the past, and they hope, as a reason to re-join the fold.
Potential banana skins?
The major fear will be of public divisions between cabinet members on their hopes for Brexit. On Sunday May will give a Brexit address, possibly adding a little more to the bones of “Brexit means Brexit”. The “we simply don’t know yet”, go-to-answer will go so far, but inevitably some, or a number, of Ministers will speak beyond their brief, giving No. 10 no choice but to slap them down.
Despite her ardent claims that there will be no General Election before 2020, there are still murmurs from opportunistic party members who want to strike their opponent whilst they are ‘down’, so to speak. Whatever May decides she has to be unequivocal in her decision, or be haunted by the indecisive label that Gordon Brown bore upon beginning his premiership.
Messrs Osborne and Gove are also likely to appear. Playing no formal part in proceedings, we can expect any fringes they support to be picked over by the press and party members for signs of dissent.
Potential policy announcements?
Due to the timing of this conference in the electoral cycle, and with a forensic Chancellor, and cautious PM, substantive policy announcements are unlikely.
The announcement of Hinkley was the only ‘ready to go’ announcement the Government had, with HS2 being old news, and Cabinet divisions over Heathrow’s third runway making any news there unlikely. We may see the launch of a consultation exercise on international trade, and the party will have to address the issue of new grammar schools one way or the other.
Other things to look out for?
The press always goes to conference with a juicy political story up their collective sleeve, and they tend to hunt as a pack. Inevitably they will have something on one member of the Cabinet, so we can expect that to feature. The vociferous rabble outside conference will again make an appearance, with Momentum looking for something to do after their own ‘shadow conference’.
Finally, while there is no formal ban on champagne as there has been in previous years, the press will certainly not miss a chance to snap Tories guzzling bubbly.