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Tory Turmoil or Tory Triumph?

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Tory Turmoil or Tory Triumph?

Researcher Mike Hough takes a before and after look at Conservative Party Conference 2018

Researcher Mike Hough takes a before and after look at Conservative Party Conference 2018

Well it cannot be worse than last year, can it? Who can forget last year’s Conservative Party conference, particularly coughing fits, P45 pranks and falling letters making it memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Not many expected May to last much longer after that. But despite constant talk of coups and resignations, the Prime Minister is still in place.

That is not the only thing that has stayed the same. Over the last year the party has remained divided over Brexit. The jostling behind Theresa May as candidates fight for a future leadership campaign has only intensified. The Prime Minister continue to battles with her party as major decisions present themselves.

Add to this a Labour conference that was expected to ignite over Brexit, deselections and anti-Semitism but passed by quite successfully. Despite these problems the Conservative Party, with a little help from the DUP, are still in power and in most polls they remain ahead.

Sunday sees the starts of this year’s conference, and here’s what we expect.

A beauty contest

As speculation persists that this will be Theresa May’s last conference as leader, the future contest to replace her will rise a few notches. Cabinet members, while strenuously denying it, will be campaigning.

The likes of Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Penny Mordaunt, (basically half the Cabinet) will all be using this conference to show they are the Tories next great hope. With members making the final decision, each potential candidate will be seeking to build their support base. Outside of this group, also keep an eye out for Tom Tugendhat and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Of course, there is one other, but we will come onto him later.

Brexit, Brexit and more Brexit

Brexit, the issue that stubbornly refuses to go away. Labour’s wrangling and disputes last week will seem like child’s play compared to the debates that will be ongoing at Tory conference. Is Chequers dead? Can Theresa May get any deal through Parliament? Will the wine be chilled?

The Prime Minister has shown no desire to ‘chuck Chequers.’ Despite the intense criticism from both Remainers and Leavers, May is sticking stubbornly to her plans. The end of conference will likely see a Prime Minister feeling battered and bruised, but, no more battered and bruised than from when she started the week.  There will be little change when it comes to the perennial B-word. The Prime Minister will know it is about getting through the four days in Birmingham before the virtually impossible process of securing a deal with Europe re-starts.

Boris Johnson

And then there is Boris. Boris will be the darling of the conference. Large crowds will follow him everywhere he goes. The media will hang on his every word and speculation will be rife about a future leadership challenge. Just as he likes it.

Whatever your view on his antics, there is also a serious conversation here. The former Foreign Secretary is front-runner to be the next leader (and de facto the next Prime Minister) and that means his actions are worth debating and discussing.

His plan published today for a ‘Better Brexit’ will form the basis of many of the Brexiteer arguments, as he leads the process to craft a narrative beyond Chequers. However, whether we will be any clearer on what the future holds for Boris by this time next week is anyone’s guess.

A rabbit from the hat?

Following some meaty policy announcements made at Labour conference, the Conservatives and the Prime Minister will be under pressure to respond. Former Skills Minister Rob Halfon has broken ranks to explicitly call for the Prime Minister to match the offer made by Labour to working people.

Party conferences have now become renowned for shock announcements. And the Prime Minister will be desperately wanting to push a few stories that aren’t about Brexit. Before last year’s speech went horribly wrong, Theresa May’s intent to adopt a more interventionist approach might have been what made the headlines. As it happens, her main announcement of an energy price cap has sailed through Parliament and will be in place before the winter. She needs to repeat that trick with added bells and whistles. Perhaps, there will be an announcement about workers on company boards after McDonnell’s pledge. After all that was a Theresa May idea in those heady pre-election days. Or maybe there’ll be an announcement designed to hit the rail companies or the big utilities organisations. Whatever it is, it needs to be radical and impactful.

Will things be any different come Wednesday?

We don’t think so. There will be drama and gossip, intrigue and debate. The Tories will still be divided on Europe and speculation will be rife about Theresa May’s leadership. Talk of a no confidence vote will reverberate around the conference hall. But she will not be challenged…

It will not be an easy conference for the Prime Minister but neither will it be terminal. Most will be steeling themselves for the true battle ahead, the battle for Brexit and the return to Westminster. The plot may thicken next week but the story will not close - these few days are only a sub-plot in a far bigger narrative.

Post hoc post script…

So, we are now a week post-conference. The dust is beginning to settle. What were the main takeaway’s and how did it compared to our expectations?

1. The beauty contest – As predicted the conference saw many potential candidates press their case. Javid and McVey went personal, Hunt went Brexity and Hancock went digital. But are we any clearer on who will be the next Tory leader or when this contest will begin. Not really!

2. Brexit – The issue bubbled away beneath the surface but did not quite ignite. The topic of the majority of fringe meetings, the trigger for a few drunken renditions of Jerusalem and God Save the Queen. Much will be read into the PM’s failure to mention Chequers in her conference speech. However, the real debate around Brexit will happen in the next few weeks. We will be far clearer in a month.

3. Boris Johnson – Yes, Boris is still the hero of the grassroots. His appearance at a fringe event was like no other. There were the traditional rhetorical flourishes and calls to Chuck Chequers. But, despite this, it is hard to argue his route to Number 10 became any smoother last week.

4. The rabbit from the hat – The PM’s speech exceeded expectations, albeit low ones. And that bunny? The announcement of the end of austerity and an unashamed attempt to reach centrist voters. This has been matched with an audacious article in the Labour supporting Observer this weekend. A PM repositioning herself?

Given all that is happening in politics, this conference is unlikely to last long in people’s memories. But with all that is on the PM’s plate, that might be no bad thing. And coming out of the week no worse than she started will probably be viewed as a success by her team.

Now, onto the simple process of negotiating a Brexit deal!

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The New Cabinet - 1 Month On

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The New Cabinet - 1 Month On

Yes, it has now been over a month since Theresa May’s reshuffle. Doesn’t time fly? Here, we present some of our new Ministers with a report card from their first month.

 

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TOP OF THE CLASS

There can only be one place to start. New DCMS Secretary, Matt Hancock, and the now famous (or infamous?) Matt Hancock App. The app (with over 1,000 downloads), the first of its kind, updates users on Mr Hancock’s activities and allows members of the public to sign up as friends and chat with other users of the app.

To date, the app appears to have drawn an eclectic variety of users with one user (as shown below) particularly engaged if not entirely serious!

It is easy to poke fun at the Matt Hancock app. If this seems familiar you may be remembering a Thick of It episode and a hapless Minister, but by not taking it too seriously, Hancock is getting good interaction at a time when the wider party has been having somewhat of a crisis of confidence when it comes to social media.

 

MUST DO BETTER

A blog post written in 2012 by new Tory Vice-Chairman Ben Bradley has recently resurfaced following some media digging after his promotion. The blog post suggested benefit claimants should have vasectomies. Rightly, Mr Bradley has apologised.

Alas, Mr Bradley’s problems do not end there. He has also been forced to apologise for posting a tweet saying Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn passed British secrets to a Czechoslovakian spy. However, as one of our recent blogs has suggested he isn’t the only one to have said something on a public forum he later regretted. Still, Must Do Better!

 

TOUGHEST START

Which Secretary of State has the toughest new gig - it's a close run contest? New Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley has not enjoyed the easiest of starts. Inheriting a row over "regulatory alignment", stalled power-sharing arrangements in Belfast and managing the DUP Ms Bradley has quite a challenge on her hands.

The Northern Ireland post has never been the easiest role in Government. Despite the success of the Good Friday agreement, tensions have persisted. In addition, she loses key SpAd Peter Cardwell to the Home Secretary at Easter. Ms Bradley could be forgiven for wishing all she had to worry about was an appropriate black dress for the BAFTAs.

Onto our second candidate. In January, David Gauke became the fifth Justice Secretary in three years. However, any hopes of a quiet introduction were quickly swept aside. Gauke, a solicitor by trade, was immediately faced with the decision over whether to pursue a judicial review to stop the release of sex attacker John Worboys. He declined this opportunity. In response, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, announced he would launch a legal challenge, as did some of Worboys victims. Expect this story to run and run and pressure to increase on Gauke to find a way to stop Worboys being released.

 

ONE TO WATCH

With many junior Tory MPs positioning themselves for what follows May, this is a crowded field. However, there is one clear choice; new Transport Minister Nusrat Ghani. Ms Ghani in answering Transport Questions became the first Muslim women Minister to speak at the Despatch Box. A notable first and one to watch.

 

CONCLUSION

Ministers; both new and old continue to grapple with ongoing political headaches such as pressure on living wages, a house building crisis, the NHS and of course Brexit. Theresa May clings on, Labour continue trying to keep their head down. UKIP have a new leader (again) and another new anti-Brexit party has been created.

This conclusion could give the indication that our politics is entirely bleak and predictable. But that would be wrong.

As we all battle through the daily negative political headlines, taking a longer view reminds us politics can be transformational and inspirational. As this photo of over 100 female parliamentarians from across the political spectrum joining together to celebrate the anniversary of female suffrage, not all politics is inconsequential. And as Polly MacKenzie has recently written in the Evening Standard, maybe it is time for us all to give up despair in politics and focus on the good we can do. Perhaps, that is something to reflect on.

 

CASE STUDY: TORIES AND SOCIAL INTERACTION

New party Chairman Brandon Lewis has also identified social media as a prominent battleground. He has written of how many Tory voters are too shy to fight Labour online. A coordinated social media strategy had seen many Tory MPs bombard social media with pro-environmental messages after Blue Planet 2.

It is not merely Blue Planet 2 which has been causing excitement on the Tory backbenches. According to an article from Iain Martin in The Times, Hollywood blockbuster Darkest Hour focusing on the life of Winston Churchill is leading Tory MPs to consider “action this day” and removing Theresa May.

Watch this space!

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New Year, new beginning? Well not in Scottish politics.

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New Year, new beginning? Well not in Scottish politics.

This article was first published on the 18th January by Pagoda Porter Novelli


Viewers of the Andrew Marr show will have seen the First Minister defiantly keep alive her hopes of calling a second referendum before the 2021 Scottish elections saying she will make her decision – based on her assessment of the Brexit outcome – in the autumn.

The most recent YouGov opinion poll (conducted between January 12 and 16) gives little succour to the First Minister’s hopes. It reveals that not only has support for independence fallen to 43%, with the No vote rising to 57%, but those who thought that a further poll should take place in the next five years has fallen to 36%.

And, more worryingly for the First Minister, the poll shows that at the 2021 Holyrood election, the SNP could lose 10 seats; even with a projected 10 seats for the Greens that total falls 2 votes short of a pro-independence majority.

The news for Labour is not much better. Support for Labour has fallen by 2% in both the constituency and regional list. And its new leader, Richard Leonard, has a negative rating of 15 when respondents were asked if he was doing well or badly. To be fair he was elected in early December and most folk pay little attention to politics over the festive period so he has little time to make his mark.

But Leonard’s perceived alignment with Jeremy Corbyn has also proven to be a negative factor. Corbyn has an approval rating of minus 3 compared to plus 20 just three months ago. Factors which may have affected Leonard and Labour’s popularity include Corbyn’s indecision on how the UK should leave the EU; Labour’s position on tax increases; the party’s ongoing promotion of federalism at a time when the electorate want to talk about services; and his loyalty to London giving the impression that Labour no longer has a distinctive Scottish voice and is back to being a “branch office”.

The Scottish Conservatives have marginally increased their support at Holyrood in the constituency and list vote. They may have benefitted from their position of not wishing to increase income tax, while all their opponents wish to agree some level of increase. The taxation issue will continue to be a dividing line right up to 2021.   Depending on the nature of Brexit and its effect on the Scottish Conservative Party, tax increases may well be at the top of the political agenda when the election rolls around. And if the Conservatives remain the only party wedded to leaving income tax levels where they are, they should benefit.

So what will 2018 bring? Ongoing criticism of the SNP’s failures in education, the NHS and Police Scotland in particular; a continued growth in support for the Scottish Conservatives and the ongoing marginalisation of Labour, at least in Scotland. Oh and no second Scottish referendum.

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