May jiggles her hips before plunging into her speech
To the music “Let’s stick Together” those Cabinet ministers who stuck around after the Chequers deal walked into the hall to take their seats. No-one noticed one missing face, the recently appointed Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox. He emerged on stage to warm up the audience for the Prime Minister.
Critics of Brexit have often claimed the vote was backward looking, a vote to go back in time. The Tory conference organisers certainly went retro in picking Mr Cox. His larynx sounds like it has been marinated in vintage port. He sounds like Donald Sinden performing Cicero. He spoke with rapture of the British spirit and the opportunities of Brexit. He quoted Milton. The fruity vowels that have echoed through the courts throughout his parliamentary career now shared with a wider audience. Tory associations will be queuing up to book him for fund-raising dinners.
The Prime Minister then entered, jigging her hips to the Abba hit “Dancing Queen.” She joked about last year’s coughing fit and then plunged into her speech.
She tried to rally her party to her Brexit plan, to bank up some support to get her through the testing weeks ahead when they discover what form it actually takes. She warned them not to seek “visions of the perfect Brexit” because that could mean they “end up with no Brexit at all” if there’s a second referendum. Expect to hear a lot more from supporters of the PM about the threat of a second referendum. It is one of the weapons they hope to deploy in taking on her more hardline Brexit opponents.
She fired a salvo at the most prominent of those, Boris Johnson. She said that Tories should “back business” not do something else four letters long that ends in “k.” She attacked those who theorise about Brexit, purists who calculate economic advantages that might come in decades when ordinary voters want economic security and growth now.
Theresa May promised “an end to austerity” and splashed some of Philip Hammond’s Budget around to signal the intent. Fuel levy freezing had been given to The Sun overnight (immigration policy was gifted to the Daily Mail earlier in the week … No. 10 wants friends in the weeks to come). Councils will have the cap on borrowing to build lifted. George Osborne’s long-serving top adviser at the Treasury, Rupert Harrison, said he worried the government might be throwing away a key dividing line with Labour if it doesn’t keep pursuing debt falling as a percentage of GDP. He said the Treasury would hate it. Some speculated that Philip Hammond might be feeling he has won many of his battles on the shape of Brexit and must concede some ground elsewhere. Maybe No. 10 offered him no choice.
Although this is a nicked Labour policy, much of the speech constituted a plan to take on Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal to the voters. Mrs May’s team think that even without a disastrous election campaign in 2017 they might have won 44/38 rather than 42/40 against Labour. There were underlying issues of neglect and hardship which had been overlooked: legacies of the crash and markets not working to everyone’s benefit. Her team believes that they have come up with an approach – mending some markets, ending austerity. Tellingly there was a clue to how the party didn’t take the Tories seriously on economics in the last election when the PM cited the £1 trillion cost of Labour’s plans in 2017. Interestingly that’s a figure which gets mentioned by Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh in their brand new book, “The British General Election of 2017” and one which the Tories didn’t get round to tallying up in the election itself.
What does an “end to austerity” really mean? One source close to Theresa May suggested that the unprotected spending departments could get some more cash. There are no changes to the existing spending allocations. One senior minister said there would be a big push on infrastructure spending. It might all sound like past Labour manifestos. The leadership wants to stamp out the Labour line that austerity was a “choice.” It was, the government insists, a “necessity.” The danger must be if you end it for reasons of political convenience and timing you might feed the idea you didn’t really have to do it the way you did in the first place.
The truth is that this moment was a necessary moment of challenge but not a decisive one. Politics could all look very different in a few weeks’ time if Theresa May comes back with a deal from Brussels. She must fight the battle for party backing then all over again. She will be doing it with the compromises of her imperfect Brexit now on show (albeit with some deft language trying to cover up some of the most painful compromises). She will hope that alters the dynamics, many in the resistance will fold as she insisted that the negotiating door has closed, it is make your mind up time and the stakes are colossal.
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