James Frayne: The stakes could not be higher for May's conference speech

Written by James Frayne on 7 September 2017 in Opinion

The PM will need to show the exact opposite side to the one she showed in the election campaign.

For Theresa May and her inner team, September is about one thing: preparing to deliver a great conference speech. Forget Brexit negotiations, developing the industrial strategy or even a possible reshuffle. They’re more important to the public and indeed to the country’s future but, for the PM and her team, they pale into insignificance compared to the need to deliver at conference.

Most of the events Westminster insiders think of as a big deal – like PMQs or major prime ministerial announcements – come and go and only have a small and cumulative impact on the way people view the political scene. The leaders’ conferences speeches are different: coverage and analysis of such speeches go on for days. Theresa May’s precarious position means this speech is particularly important.

The stakes could not be higher: a poor speech puts May at immediate risk of an internal leadership challenge; a solid speech means the assumed timetable of a two year premiership remains viable; a great speech means people might even start believing she’s capable of leading the Party into the next election.

As such, a massive but discreet operation will be underway across the special adviser network across Whitehall to collate ideas for conference – nominally for the party as a whole, but in reality to generate options for the prime minister. And a subset of the PM’s inner team will be tasked with developing the big themes, crafting the narrative and liaising with trusted outsiders that will be asked to give ideas and views.

In truth, this particular speech is for Tory MPs, the media and Conservative activists –  in that order. Voters aren’t irrelevant but on this occasion come way down the list of priorities. If MPs are happy and fired up, if the media reports it positively, and if activists hear all about it, it'll be a job well done. There will be multiple other opportunities to speak to the public - once survival is assured.

What will make a great speech for these audiences? Answering that means considering the position the PM now finds herself in. Fundamentally, it’s a position of weakness borne of extreme doubts about her abilities as a campaigner and retail politician, and also doubts about whether she can lead the Party. Forget substance; few doubt she can do substance. Rather, they doubt whether Theresa May can do political theatre.

This speech is therefore primarily about style, tone and performance. The PM needs to show the exact opposite side to the one she showed in the election campaign. That means being dynamic, combative, funny and, above all, human.

This is easier said than done, of course. The public display of such qualities do not come naturally to her, regardless of her private persona. And, irritatingly for the PM and her team, there is an added complication. Since David Cameron's legendary 2005 conference speech, few judge speeches to be truly great unless they’re delivered without notes.

Of course, someone’s ability to memorise a speech is totally irrelevant - not only to whether they can lead competently, but also to whether they can do modern retail politics, which relies more on interviews, mini stump speeches and decent performances at made-for-TV events. But the PM’s team have to contend with this challenge anyway; the PM will have to talk without notes.

Does substance have any role? That depends on your definition of substance. At this point, Theresa May does not need to deliver a detailed analysis of the state of the country or the state of the world. She won’t get much credit for a visionary plan to deal with the crisis with North Korea. Again, no one doubts she can do substance.

However, the PM will be expected to announce policies within a coherent political framework – policies that effectively stack up the substance of her speech. 

If Theresa May was speaking primarily to voters, I’d strongly recommend developing further her approach to the “just about managing” – the lower middle class and working class voters of provincial England. Given Labour’s apparent new pro-Europeanism, I’d suggest amending this approach so that it increasingly emphasises the values and interests of working class voters. Labour’s shift leaves their MPs massively vulnerable in the North and Midlands.

But given she’s speaking primarily to MPs, I’d probably focus hard on the traditional Conservative approach to social mobility and meritocracy. This leaves most voters cold but Conservative MPs love it and many commentators do too. Crucially, it would also provide her with the ability to talk about her own rise to power – not an easy rise for a woman in politics – and to talk about the changing face of the modern Conservative Party. This would enable her to project more of a human face, to make the Party feel good (and united) and also enable her to wade into Jeremy Corbyn both ideologically and practically.

There are other options of course. But whichever option the PM and her inner team take, it must enable her to give the right performance. The overall narrative and all of the policy ideas announced or floated must help Theresa May to look good on the conference stage. As her closest advisers must keep repeating to her: "Style over substance, prime minister; style over substance." 




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