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A view from Conservative Party Conference

A view from Conservative Party Conference

As 12,000 tired and slightly worse for wear delegates begin to recover from a busy 4 days at Conservative Party Conference, Number 10 will be breathing a quiet sigh of relief. With no gaffes, and few MPs causing trouble (Osborne, Gove et al stayed away), Theresa May sailed through her first party conference as leader with flying colours. More importantly though, we got our first real insight into what ‘Mayism’ might mean for the country.

Overall, the delegates felt optimistic and united, with Theresa May and her new Ministers receiving a strong reception throughout. However, the mood was also serious – there was a sense that this Government would be a safe pair of hands, that all policy would be fully considered, and that there would be a lack of gimmicks. It was clear that many felt that Theresa May’s premiership (and the Labour Party’s collapse) was a great opportunity to reach out and expand beyond the Party’s traditional base. Perhaps this was most noticeable at the packed DUP’s reception, which had a lengthy queue and Conservative Party members greeted DUP MPs like old friends (although that may have been because of the free champagne on offer…).

Unsurprisingly, Brexit dominated the entire four days. There were countless fringe events discussing everything from Britain’s role in the world, to what it means for the energy market, and how to ensure that young people aren’t left behind. However, there wasn’t the triumphant grandstanding that might have been expected – instead, the delegates seemed to understand that however they personally voted, it is now time to pull together and get on with the ob.

The Prime Minister set the agenda by making her Brexit announcements at the start of the conference; giving party members something to rally around. For the first time, we learnt that Article 50 will be triggered by March next year and that the Queen’s Speech will contain the Great Repeal Act, which will adopt all current EU law into British law. Despite this, there was still a lack of detail besides and ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and how things are going to work practically. There was a palpable sense of confusion from businesses, and all were keen to engage and get their points across. Tellingly, it felt like most delegates were gearing themselves up for a ‘hard’ Brexit.

The biggest change at this year’s conference was the Conservative Party’s lurch to the left, and an obvious U-turn on the austerity agenda. This was evident throughout the conference (e.g. Housing Minister Gavin Barwell proved his commitment to delivering 1 million new homes by 2020 by attending no fewer than 18 fringe events), however, it was Theresa May’s closing speech that really emphasised how her Government will differ from Cameron’s. Her speech proposed policies that included price controls, dropping the target for a surplus by 2020, taking action against house builders to increase the housing stock, and an even stronger stance on immigration than she had taken as Home Secretary.

tmayquote

Perhaps the most controversial statement from May was that “Government can and should be a force for good; the state exists to provide what individual people, communities and markets cannot; we should employ the power of government for the good of the people”. Although likely to go down well with the public, it could also be the first sign of trouble ahead. These comments were widely criticised by business groups, including the CBI and IOD, and will put many pro-market Conservative MPs who are overtly pro-business in a difficult position. It is clear that businesses can expect a tougher ride under May than they are used to, and will have to fight hard to protect their interests.

Overall the conference revealed that May and her team will be a safe pair of hands. She isn’t driven by ideology or cronyism – but a desire to help those who have fallen on hard times. She is also determined to deliver the Brexit that she thinks the country voted for (even if that means making compromises over issues such as passports, to ensure that we get full control of our immigration system).

For the public, it is likely that she will offer a strong centre-ground alternative to Labour. However, it is unlikely that she will fulfil the hopes of many within the Tory membership of becoming a second Margaret Thatcher, and there will inevitably be trouble ahead.

What will Prime Minister Theresa May mean for Britain and the Conservatives?

Theresa May

Theresa May. Image courtesy of the Home Office

On Wednesday 13th July, Theresa May will become Britain’s second female Prime Minister. After an intense yet short campaign, energy minister and Brexit campaigner Andrea Leadsom, Home Secretary Theresa May’s last opponent in the Conservative leadership contest, has withdrawn her candidacy after controversial comments on motherhood highlighted her inexperience. Following Leadom’s withdrawal, David Cameron announced that he would tender his resignation to the Queen tomorrow, and Theresa May would become PM straight after.

Theresa May, in contrast to Leadsom, was billed as the experienced candidate in the leadership contest.  An MP for almost twenty years, she became the Party’s first female chairman in 2002. In 2010 she became Home Secretary, making her one of the longest serving Home Secretaries in British history and the most senior female in the Conservative Party, singling her out as a potential future leader.

As a politician, May has been careful to distance herself from the old Etonian men’s club that has surrounded the likes of Cameron, Osborne and Johnson. In short, she has sought to make herself an alternative to the traditional political elite. She has been a cautious campaigner, not favouring loud statements which characterised her campaigning (or lack thereof) for the Remain campaign.

She is known to be one of the most hardworking cabinet ministers, and there have been doubts over her ability to delegate work; something which is difficult as Home Secretary but cannot be sustained as Prime Minister. She has also been accused of hiding behind her special advisors which came to the forefront during her very public head to head with Michael Gove in 2014. She has, however, enjoyed surges in popularity, particularly following the deportation of radical cleric Abu Qatada, something which previous Home Secretaries had been unable to achieve. She has been known for taking a tough line on immigration, something which can be expected to continue in the wake of Brexit.

She is known for being “bloody difficult”, with a reputation for being a fierce negotiator, however, perhaps this is just what Britain needs when heading into Brexit talks. Indeed her background in finance (underplayed in the leadership contest) will perhaps help her combat the economic worries that will arise with Brexit negotiations.

As Prime Minister, Theresa May will also be able to reunite the Conservative Party. After a bitter split between the Leave and Remain camps, the Tories appears to be desperate to avoid the current instability that is engulfing the Labour Party. Despite having campaigned for the losing Remain camp, May enjoyed strong cross-party support, gaining 199 votes in last wee

Andrea Leadsom

Andrea Leadsom. Photo courtesy of Policy Exchange on Flickr.

k’s MP ballot, compared to Angela Leadsom’s 84. In her withdrawal speech, Leadsom emphasised Britain’s need for a strong and stable government, something which infighting amongst the party during a prolonged leadership campaign would prevent.

Furthermore, the speed of her selection as Party Leader means that Cameron will not be a lame-duck Prime Minister until September. This is a positive move, particularly for business, as drawing out the process would only increase uncertainty surrounding Britain’s EU exit and delay the recovery Britain needs to make following such a divisive vote.

Most significantly Theresa May has stressed her objective to re-establish trust in politics. The Brexit result was a real kick for the political establishment. The people of Britain voted against a political elite that they felt had failed them and did not represent them, with Tony Blair suggesting that the leave vote was a protest against the establishment. May appears to have heard this and understood the need to respond. Talking in Birmingham, May pledged to place the Conservative Party “at the service of ordinary working people”. In a throwback to Ed Miliband, she promised to be tough on big business, something which voters were keen to see in the last general election. She promised workers and consumers roles on company boards and strong rules protecting pay. May assured the disillusioned that firm change would come to British politics.

Finally, Theresa May has ruled out any chance of Britain remaining in the EU, putting an end to speculation by political commentators that Brexit may not happen, as the referendum was not legally binding. May has put an end to these rumours declaring that “Brexit means Brexit” and that she would not ignore the vote of the British public. Yet uncertainty surrounds what Brexit will actually mean, particularly for those EU migrants who May has claimed might not be guaranteed a right to stay, and exactly when Article 50 will be triggered, which May has said will not be before the end of 2016.

However, this will not end the period of political uncertainty in Britain, particularly in relation to calls for a snap general election. Following Leadsom’s withdrawal, Tim Farron tweeted his belief that the Conservative Party no longer has a mandate. This is particularly significant given Theresa May’s past criticisms of Gordon Brown for not calling an immediate general election after he succeeded Tony Blair, when she criticised him for the lack of a democratic mandate. However, during her leadership campaign, she said she would not call a general election, providing further stability for the country.

Only one thing is certain: despite being the ‘stability’ candidate Mrs May will certainly be thrown straight in at the deep end and will be put to the test with Brexit renegotiation and will have to act quickly to heal the rifts in the Conservative Party.

By Olivia Gass

The progressive dilemma: Is there a route back to power?

Dan Jarvis, Chukka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves, Tristram Hunt, Norman Lamb, Tim Farron, Stella Creasy

Dan Jarvis, Chukka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves, Tristram Hunt, Norman Lamb, Tim Farron, Stella Creasy

Progressive politics, that is the centre-left in British politics, is currently at its lowest ebb for several decades. For many, the outlook feels uncertain, if not bleak.

It is wrong however to look to Corbyn’s surprise rise last year as a singular moment of defeat. The truth is progressive politics has been in decline for some time.

First, Cameron’s victory over Brown in 2010, following the crash of 2008, brought a formal end to the New Labour era. Failing to win that election outright, the Conservative’s real victory, however, has been in its sustained and devastating assault on Labour’s claim to economic competence, something fundamental to Blair and Brown’s success. Under fire, Labour’s progressives have too readily accepted this negative re-telling of their legacy.

Second, the SNP’s victory over progressives in Scotland, first gaining control of the Scottish Parliament in 2007 and then all but wiping out the other parties north of the border at the 2015 General Election. If there had ever been a warning sign for progressives that there was trouble afoot, the appetite for change (disguised as nationalism) that lay behind the rise of the SNP was it. It could be argued that Salmond/Sturgeon have already pulled off the shift to the left in Scottish politics that Corbyn now seeks to achieve for Labour.

Third, the near destruction of the Liberal Democrats (the other progressive party) last year. In practice, their support and local government powerbase had been in terminal decline every year since the party entered coalition and were unable to deliver the “change” they had promised. But the 2015 General Election wrenched the party of the “liberal centre” from a position of real power, and left them to a harsh fight for their very survival.

Fourth, Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour Party and determination to reclaim the party for socialism. Many progressive Labour MPs remain in parliament, but they are by and large now excluded from the front bench, increasingly alienated by the direction of policy travel and effectively powerless in the context of Corbyn’s strong grassroots mandate and support.

Moving forward, the defenestrated progressives on the backbenches of the Labour Party and in the Liberal Democrat rump now face remarkably similar and equally fundamental existential challenges.

To the individuals concerned, their fall from grace has come as a real shock and there seems to be a real struggle in both parties to identify a clear route back to power.

Asides from division – between two parties, due to minor policy differences, as a result of personal rivalries, and due to the political necessity of party loyalty in our electoral system that is preventing otherwise natural breakaway or mergers, the key reason behind this is one of substance.

Fundamentally, just as Blair embraced the market economic defined legacy of Thatcher, Cameron has arguably embraced the loosely defined social and public service reform agenda of New Labour, in effect stealing the progressive’s clothes and raison d’être.

Driven by a mixture of pragmatism, a genuine shift away from social conservatism, the real and lasting impact of coalition with a genuinely progressive party, and the existence of some powerful voices for radical reform, particularly to education and welfare, the Conservatives have to a large extent been able to offer the public evolutionary continuity rather than radical change from the Blair/Brown era.

This is further complicated by progressive recognition of the broad necessity of Conservative fiscal policy – now the key dividing line on the left. Progressives, both Labour and Liberal Democrat, have been inclined to accept the need for balanced budgets and therefore continued cuts to public expenditure (albeit with significant differences of opinion about where the cuts should fall, the role of government capital investment, and the need for some tax increases to spread the burden more fairly). For those on the resurgent left (Corbyn et al and the SNP) this simply equates to being “Tory lite”.

What was clearly lacking in the Labour leadership contest, and remains elusive, is a clear progressive alternative platform for government. And with limited scope for a coup within the Labour Party and with more than four years until the next General Election, developing one must become focal if they are to ever stand a chance of regaining the initiative and returning to power.

There is plenty of scope for new thinking. On multinational taxation, on infrastructure investment, on housing and on the environment the Tories are weak and open to challenge. There is also a clear need for a new public service reform agenda centred on the integration of services to meet the ever complex needs of individuals.

In the short term, the European referendum should provide a rousing and unifying cause for progressives to work for, allowing the building of relationships and establishment of new voices.

Ultimately whether British progressives unite in common cause SDP style, or continue to develop distinct social democratic and liberal paths in parallel, will largely be determined by whether Lib Dem electoral fortunes improve independently and how long Corbyn remains in power.

In the 1990s the Lib Dem and Labour electoral fortunes were linked, and in the future political landscape progressive interests may need to align more deeply to pave a new path back to power. But the key to this is new thinking and progressives must take the opportunity of their new found freedom to get on with it.