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4 October 2017

Theresa May’s hollow words won’t stop Brexit infighting

The PM has thrown away the opportunity to demonstrate real reflection on the election.

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May will close out Conservative conference today with her big speech to the party faithful.

Just as with the forthcoming Taylor Swift album, we’re all hoping that the full record will be better than the pre-released extracts but it doesn’t exactly look like a floor-filler at the moment.  Yes, I know I’ve made that joke before, but if the Prime Minister hasn’t learnt anything since the general election, why should I?

The subtext – and I promise I am not joking – is essentially: why are you all talking about the race to replace me when there’s so much suffering in the world? She will talk about “ordinary working people” and urge her party to stop worrying about “our job security, but theirs”, not to focus on “our future, but on the future of their children and their grandchildren”. “Stop fights and do your duty, May tells Tories” is the Times‘s splash, while the Guardian goes for “May: time for infighting over to Brexit to stop”.

It’s the same fundamental problem as the one which underpinned her election campaign from the very beginning: it’s a lovely line, but it’s not true. If Theresa May was worried about the job security of working people, ordinary or otherwise, she’d be looking for a transition deal that takes as long as it takes to negotiate a bespoke trade deal, not a time-limited one that reassures nervous Brexiteer MPs.

She wouldn’t stand by as Boris Johnson offends another European ally or causes a row abroad (today’s target is Libya). If her focus was on “ordinary working people”, she wouldn’t have triggered Article 50 until the government’s ducks were in a row, and she wouldn’t have gone for that election. Instead she is worrying about her job security.

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And that of course is one of the reasons that the Brexit infighting won’t stop: that Conservative MPs (and indeed everyone else in the country) knows that it is survival in her job that comes first and that if you are willing to make noise and create problems, U-turns will follow.

That reflects on the real missed opportunity at this conference and May’s great tragedy: that she’s thrown away the opportunity to demonstrate real reflection about what happened on 8 June – she’s declined the Conservatives’ chance to change. That, as much as the state of the polls or what happened at the election, is why Labour are the ones who end conference season with their tails up.