Five thoughts on Conservative party conference

Theresa May has entered the Gordon Brown zone, and the Tories are heading to the right.

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Sorry is the hardest word

The pollster Deborah Mattinson always says that when the focus groups started to feel sorry for Gordon Brown, she knew the game was up.

If Theresa May’s big speech is remembered at all it will be for the series of painful humiliations. A prankster, Lee Nelson, interrupted and handed her a P45.  Then she began to lose her voice, with the hall rising to applaud her to buy her time to recover. Finally, the set began to fall apart around her, as first the “f” and then the “e” fell off the “a country that works for everyone” sign.

Only someone with a heart of stone can have failed to feel at least a flicker of sympathy for the Prime Minister. The metaphor felt all too cruelly appropriate. But as Brown found before her, voters don’t want to feel sorry for their prime minister.

The Tories know what their problem is but they don’t know what the solution is

As you’d expect, the most well-attended fringes were the post-mortems. The party seems to have largely correctly identified who cost them their majority – affluent ethnic minorities, the young and the socially liberal – but are some distance from identifying “why”.

Around half of Conservative activists and MPs from the 2015 and 2017 intakes have “got it” as far as the damage the housing crisis is doing to the social fabric and their hopes of winning stable parliamentary majorities.

A lot depends on the detail of Theresa May’s £9bn boost for housing – the word “affordable” covers all number of sins – but they might be on the way back if they can come up with a solution here. 

Theresa May sounds troublingly like Ed Miliband

The energy market is broken, the British economy isn’t working for enough – even the self-pitying remark about how hard the job is sounded like an Ed Miliband speech. And as with an Ed Miliband speech it was hard to fault the broad diagnosis, but the policy solutions were largely a combination of the worthy but small (making organ donation opt-out not opt-in) and the costly but bad (freezing tuition fees at £9,250).

The fear for the Conservatives is that the programme won’t be any more electorally successful than Ed Miliband's was.

The Conservatives can’t come to terms with their failure

No one in Britain has had a pay rise for a decade, economic growth is being driven by expanding household debt, and productivity growth is slower than at any point since the invention of the steam engine.

 

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Now listen to Stephen discussing the Conservative Party's future on the NS podcast:

You can have a good argument about whether Jeremy Corbyn’s solutions will fix that and whether this would always have been the legacy of the financial crisis, regardless of who was in power. What you can’t argue is that the British economy is in good health.

 

The difficulty for Conservative ministers is that they can’t say this because they’ve been in office for seven years and haven’t fixed the problem, and in some cases have made it worse. But the trouble is that what they are doing instead is arguing that the economy is working fine, that voters need to learn a little about Britain in the 1970s or Venezuela in 2017, which makes them sound a lot like Marie Antoinette. And the thing about Marie Antoinette is that she had her head chopped off. 

The Conservatives are heading to the right

The politician packing out the fringes was Jacob Rees-Mogg. The star turns on the main stage were Priti Patel, the International Development Secretary, and Boris Johnson. Patel is on the right of the party out of principle while Johnson occupies it out of expediency. But in both cases it attests to the vitality of right-wing ideas among the Conservative grassroots – and the difficulty that any candidate from the party’s left will have winning the leadership.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.