George Pascoe-Watson: Theresa May will have her work cut out at Tory conference
As commentators watch for signs of leadership plotting in Birmingham, the PM needs to turn Tory fire on to Labour.
The circular firing squad image emblazoned on the front page of the Conservative house magazine The Spectator is well-chosen. For this is the very thing Theresa May and her closest team are determined to avoid at this year’s party conference in Birmingham. The Premier’s mission is to ensure those rifles are aimed at Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party – and its policies – rather than facing her from point blank range.
The four days at the Hyatt Hotel will determine Mrs May’s – and Britain’s – future. Get it right and she will unite her party against a common enemy. It won’t make Tory division over Brexit disappear. Not even Harry Potter could make that happen. But Mrs May could galvanise her warring factions long enough to turn their fire on Labour instead of trying to remove her from power.
The stark warning that a general election would return a Labour government is not lost on many Conservatives. Some love the lure of being in office. That alone is enough to keep certain figures focused on the prize, so they display loyalty. Others are well aware of their paper-thin constituency majorities. Nursing a few dozen, a few hundred or even below the 3,000 mark “in the patch” is enough to keep them on the straight and narrow.
The work has already begun. Conservative whips and Cabinet supporters have been painstakingly building the argument over the summer. Speak to many backbenchers, ministers and advisers and they shrug off Boris Johnson’s hogging of the headlines during July and August.
They are also convinced the European Research Group is showing the first signs of its own split between the 10 or so hardcore and other, more thoughtful members. Look, they say, at the way the ERG proudly boasted about their discussion this week on ways of despatching their leader. And see how quick Jacob Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan Smith were to distance themselves.
At 2pm on the last Sunday of September, new Conservative chairman Brandon Lewis will kick the operation into life with his curtain-raising speech to the party faithful. He will acknowledge the Conservative broad church is fit to burst over its Brexit division. But he will say that there remains a bigger enemy – a Labour government.
It’s hard to see anyone at Conservative conference disagreeing. But Mr Lewis knows better than most the scale of the challenge he faces. Firstly, he represents a Brexit-voting constituency. He has spent a year rebuilding the party’s core function. The job continues. Serious figures with more miles on the clock, greater experience and guile, have been hired into important positions. In particular, he has beefed up CCHQ’s legendary research unit.
There is much that Mr Lewis can do. But much of it is out of his hands. It is up to Theresa May to show she still has the determination to carry on with so many hurdles in the way.
Smart brains are generating new policy ideas. What’s the point in Conservatism in an era where there’s consensus around taxation and deficit? How will Britain’s economy be disrupted over the coming years and what can government to do help, rather than hinder, its people?
Smart young Conservatives are doing the thinking. Impressive individuals like Will Tanner, a former colleague of mine at Portland, are leading the way with his new thinktank Onward.
As commentators watch to see signs of leadership plotting, there will be a more subtle game in town – the energy and ideas from the fringe programme should give us a clue as to the strength of the party’s longer term hopes. Bim Afolami, George Freeman, Tom Tugendhat, Seema Kennedy, Kemi Badenoch, Rachel MacLean, Lucy Fraser and of course, Ruth Davidson are all fizzing with ideas and energy.
Cabinet ministers are working afresh to ensure their policy decisions are put through a political lens. They weren’t much helped when Boris diverted media attention away from a self-induced anti-Semitism crisis at Labour HQ. The fact remains that Boris there will standing room only for the former foreign secretary’s speech at conference. There’ll be spill-over rooms to watch on screens. But can he get himself onto the final two of any leadership ballot? Conservative MPs are very doubtful.
Sajid Javid is attracting serious support from leaders of the Brexit supporters. Others spot Dominic Raab in the wings, waiting to play his trump card. But others believe that all things change when Britain actually leaves the EU. Sure, hardcore figures will always argue the deal doesn’t go far enough – assuming there will be a deal. But in the main, the thinking goes like this: once we’re out, there will be a refocus in the Conservative Party on who should lead Brexit Britain.
Domestic issues will jolt back into focus and the prize will go to the leader who can paint a convincing story about this country’s future. It is doubtful there will be a general election any time soon, observers calculate. In late November, Mrs May would have to lose the vote on whatever deal she pieces together with the EU. There would then need to be a vote of confidence which she would lose. And there would have to be a reversal of the fixed term Parliament legislation.
It’s not just Tories who are nursing small majorities. Labour and the SNP are in similar boats. Conservative Party conference will set the scene for how this country is governed for some time to come.