Theresa May is the beneficiary of low expectations. After last year’s debacle – a coughing fit, a collapsing stage, a conniving prankster – her speech will be deemed a success merely for avoiding this fate. (“You’ll have to excuse me if I cough during this speech; I’ve been up all night supergluing the backdrop,” she quipped.)
But the address was stronger in other respects too; the problem is that it was delivered by Theresa May. The Prime Minister’s rhetoric, as so often, was undermined by her record.
In an early section, she denounced the toxic abuse increasingly directed at politicians, not just Jacob Rees-Mogg and his family, but “the first black woman ever to be elected to the House of Commons”: Diane Abbott (who “receives more racist and misogynist messages today than when she first stood over 30 years ago”).
Some people, May said, “have lost sight of the fact that political differences are not everything.” But these words would have been more powerful in the mouth of a politician who was not responsible for the “Go Home vans”, the “hostile environment” (a policy May issued no apology for) and the attack on “citizens of nowhere”.
May’s most significant announcement by far was the promise of an end to austerity in next year’s Spending Review (“A decade after the financial crash, people need to know that the austerity it led to is over and that their hard work has paid off”). Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, who pledged the diametric opposite in his own speech, may have other ideas, but May’s words were a mark of how the Tories now fear Labour and of how the centre has shifted leftwards. Jeremy Corbyn’s assertion last week that his party represents the “mainstream” and the new “common sense” was entirely validated.
When the Prime Minister gave her first address as Tory leader, Corbyn was largely ignored. But in common with her colleagues, May has been forced to take Labour seriously. “However bad the Labour approach is, we must do more than criticise it,” she conceded. “We need to show what this Conservative government is doing to address people’s concerns.
To this end, May pre-empted the Spending Review by confirming her promise of £20bn more for the NHS by 2023/24 and the abolition of the cap on council borrowing for housebuilding (a policy borrowed, appropriately enough, from Labour). Yet the former follows the longest period of austerity in the health service’s history (with no explanation as to how it will be funded) and the latter is a sensible but belated measure. Why, one was moved to ask, did May not give this speech in 2016?
May cast herself as a figurehead for “decent, moderate, and patriotic” people “appalled by what Jeremy Corbyn has done to Labour”, and hailed “the heirs of Hugh Gaitskell and Barbara Castle, Denis Healey and John Smith” (“not on the frontbench”). Yet if May’s party was truly the centrist force she describes, Labour MPs would be lining up to join it (as Tories did in the New Labour era), not discussing creating their own.
After the Brexit vote, the Prime Minister had a genuine chance to be the unifying figure she spoke of but, by unashamedly embracing Leave populism, she choose the politics of division. At one point, she derided Labour for “not acting in the national interest, but their own political interest” over European policy. But the Prime Minister who called a needless general election, in the hope of inflating her majority, cannot credibly level this charge.
For the Conservatives this was, to borrow a May coinage, the “just managing” conference. Faced with the epic task of Brexit, and burdened by a discredited Prime Minister, the Tories cannot achieve the political and intellectual renewal they so visibly need.
In this uninspiring context, May’s speech was a success. But, as she knows, her reprieve will not last long. The Prime Minister must now win the approval of both her party and the EU for a Brexit deal – a truly Sisyphean task. Though May fears Labour, the most immediate threat is posed by her own side.
“I passionately believe that our best days lie ahead of us and that our future is full of promise,” May declared in a comically banal passage. But the grim truth is that for the Prime Minister – and perhaps Britain too – far worse ones do.