A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the party’s first new leader in a decade took to the stage in Birmingham but the expected repeat of last year’s conference slogan – ‘a country that works for everyone’ – would suggest little progress has been made.
Ordinary working families and those who are just about managing haven’t seen the promised help, there is still a long way to go before the “burning injustices” in modern society cease to exist. It’s foolish to attempt to predict what the keynote announcements will be, but the timing of the Florence speech suggests that Number 10 are hopeful that by talking about Brexit now, attention at the Conference will be on the domestic agenda.
If progressing domestic policy is to be the official Conference theme, Brexit remains the unofficial one. It cannot be ignored and there will be no escaping it; it’s mentioned 115 times in the fringe guide alone, and, approximately six months on from the triggering of Article 50, it remains all dominating. The Prime Minister’s latest set-piece intervention attempted to walk the thin line between adhering to calls for a pragmatic Brexit, and ensuring that the UK can take control of its own laws in the future. There was red meat for both sides of the debate but, despite a softening in tone, it remains to be seen if Theresa May’s approach of trying to be all things to all people has moved the dial any further forward. Tory disunity continues to bubble under the surface and morale is not at its best.
There are three other unofficial themes to be aware of this year.
First and most obvious will be post-mortem of the general election. A year ago, the party faithful headed to Birmingham with a 16-point lead and a Commons majority, since then they’ve been humiliated at the ballot box and watched their influence wane, in spite of Jeremy Corbyn. It is hard to overemphasise the grassroots’ annoyance at how the general election campaign was handled, and it is in this arena that Chair of the backbench 1922 Committee Graham Brady and former Cabinet Minister Sir Eric Pickles will seek to demonstrate that they have listened, that they understand, and that they are acting. This meeting, taking place on Sunday, will set the tone of the Conference and, if misjudged, could see proceedings commence on quite a hostile footing.
Secondly, attention will also be turning to next year’s local elections. Many local activists are anxious and there is a real fear that several flagship councils could lose their Conservative majorities. These seats were last contested in 2014, a time when Ed Miliband eating bacon sandwiches awkwardly and David Cameron was telling television studios that he was feeling “upbeat, bullish and optimistic” about the planned renegotiations with the EU. How different the world looks now. With local campaigning already afoot, the Party will be aware of the need to articulate its localism strategy and rally the troops.
The last of the unofficial themes will be the inevitable gossip surrounding potential future leadership contenders. Jacob Rees-Mogg has denied having any intention on the job – but he still has nine speaking events scheduled over 48 hours, and they’ll be box office. Others will also be partaking in the Conference beauty parade, despite the stark truth that, at present, none of them are viable candidates. The gossip in the bars will inevitably focus on ‘who’s next’; the conclusions will always be the same, “no one obvious”; but when you find yourself seeing the same MP(s) everywhere, take note.
Last year’s conference was split between the need to articulate the UK’s plan for Brexit and the importance of defining a domestic agenda. In this sense, the plan hasn’t changed. But the Party has. It’s fragmented, it’s angry, it’s afraid, and it’s in need of direction. For months it’s been clear that the Conference would be Theresa May’s next big ‘test’ but for her to be able to call it a success, it will have to be a pivotal moment in her career.
Main image by mari – https://www.flickr.com/photos/birdies-perch/