The SNP still has its conference to come, but short of Nicola Sturgeon managing to set the lectern on fire during her speech, it’s difficult to imagine how the SNP could hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in the way the Conservatives have this week.
The kindest thing you can say is that it’s been a ‘difficult’ week for the blue party. Anyone watching, whether on site or on television, could see the atmosphere was flat. There was a dearth of ambition and new policies. And, of course, there were the mishaps, with the Prime Minister’s cold, the stage literally falling down around her, and the absurd sight of Simon Brodkin getting within touching distance of Theresa May compounding matters.
Quite simply, if it could go wrong, it probably did. But what conclusions can we draw from arguably the most difficult Tory conference of the last decade?
The Budget has to be a blockbuster
The Prime Minister’s headline-intended housing policies were swiftly described as incremental rather than game-changing by political commentators. Philip Hammond mused about the Winter of Discontent. Michael Fallon called for more defence funding, without any indication the Treasury is about to loosen the purse strings. And Boris talked about ‘letting the lion roar.’
Save for a cap on energy prices, it was a conference light on new ideas and policy. Say what you want about Labour’s offering (and how its policies might be funded), but there was plenty in the way of policy aspirations for the electorate to get their teeth into. And after the #epicfail of the General Election, the Tories really needed to seize back the initiative and show themselves to be full of ideas.
The next big political set piece will be the Budget on 22 November. If the Conservatives are to have any hope of arresting a startling decline in fortunes over the last six months, they need a game changing speech from Philip Hammond. But with news in the FT today that the Chancellor is faced with the loss of half of the £26bn buffer he thought he’d created – the product of over optimism by the Office of Budget Responsibility – the chances of a blockbuster Budget look slim. Mr Hammond will have to pull a rabbit from a hat more akin to Paul Daniels than his predecessor George Osborne. No pressure.
Bust for Boris
No-one’s ever described Boris Johnson as the shy and retiring type. Nor has anyone underestimated his desire to be Prime Minister. But having arrived at conference as the Tory version of a rock star, the Foreign Secretary left with his leadership aspirations if not dead on arrival then certainly in intensive care.
If Theresa May’s week was bad, Boris’ was nearly catastrophic. A supremely ill-considered remark on Libya wasn’t so much the straw as the boulder that broke the camel’s back for his fellow MPs, many of whom were already apoplectic over his public interventions on Brexit. And who can forget Amber Rudd demanding Boris join the applause for the Prime Minister, chastising her Cabinet colleague like an errant schoolboy. The Foreign Secretary now faces the ire of the 1922 Committee, with speculation many want his head.
Even if Theresa May is ousted, after this week Boris could have a major challenge on his hands to secure the MP support necessary to stand as a leadership contender. The keys of Downing Street have arguably never been further from his grasp.
The Tories have never been afraid of a good bloodletting when it comes to the leadership. Just ask Iain Duncan Smith.
While Labour have struggled to move leaders on over the years, the Tory approach for decades has been one of ruthless efficiency, akin to Blofeld’s line from the James Bond franchise – this organisation does not tolerate failure.
So it’s hardly surprising that the knives were out for Theresa May almost before she stepped off the stage at conference. Grant Shapps claims more than 30 MPs want her to stand down, but despite an incredibly tough week it doesn’t look like the Prime Minister has any plans to depart Downing Street anytime soon. But even if they’re able to oust Theresa May (and Cabinet claims of solidarity make that a hefty if), then it begs the question, who’s next?
Boris looks like his leadership aspirations, at least in the medium term, are over. David Davis has been mooted as a possibility, but in the context of managing a transition before gracefully walking into the sunset, which hardly speaks to long-term succession planning nor plans for the 2022 election. And of course there’s Jacob Rees-Mogg. But while the ‘Honourable Member for the early twentieth century’ perhaps doth protest too much in denying leadership aspirations, he could be a polarising figure both within and outside his party. Which brings too…
It might Amber Rudd’s time
Amber Rudd arguably had the best conference of anyone in the Cabinet. Already well regarded among the Tory ranks, the Home Secretary immediately demonstrated loyalty to the Prime Minister after ‘that’ speech. And her public encouragement of Boris to get to his feet and join the applause certainly did her no harm at all.
The Home Secretary is undoubtedly in the political heavyweight category – and of course was sent to debate Jeremy Corbyn in Mrs May’s absence during the election campaign. And she’s understood to be taking advice (although perhaps more for local support) from the Wizard of Oz, Lynton Crosby himself.
The challenge for Ms Rudd is that she might struggle to maintain the support of the hard Brexiteers, while her decimated constituency majority is a problem. But she’s dusted herself off from almost being the highest profile Tory casualty of the election with admirable speed. And if Tory regicide does take full effect, expect the Home Secretary to be there or there about when it comes to the leadership.
The youth of today has to be priority number one
Tory delegates arrived in Manchester knowing they needed to prise the 18-35 vote away from Labour is they want to win an election in 2022. They left with the same problem.
The Prime Minister has pledged to overhaul tuition fees and her housing reforms were, at least in part, designed to help first-time buyers and enable the younger generation to get onto the housing ladder. The impact of them was largely lost amidst a spate of coughing (not the PM’s fault), the machinations of parliamentary colleagues, and an absence of game changing policy announcements.
Like it or lump it, Labour has managed to reach out to the younger demographic, particularly over the past 12 months. The Tories, starting with the Budget, are going to have to challenge that hold, even if it means antagonising some of their core ‘grey’ voters.