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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