The one thing you do not want to solicit when delivering a prime ministerial address to your party, is pity. But that was the overwhelming response to Theresa May’s speech yesterday (at least from delegates). Elsewhere the verdict was harsher, Alistair Campbell commented that anyone can be prepared through medication to speak for an hour without coughing, fierce questions have been thrown at the party Chairman for the failures in security that allowed Lee Nelson access to the podium. The disintegrating lettering above May’s head is too embarrassing for (internal) comment.
I got a very bad feeling from the Tory party conference. The average age of the Conservative members is 72 and we weren’t far off that average yesterday. There was a lethargy just in moving from room to room. The die-hards never ceased telling anyone who listened how long they had been coming but the only new delegate I met turned out to be there because he’d just been elected an MP.
If I am painting a picture of bungling incompetence, of lethargy and a lack of challenge, then so did Theresa May. Her apology to the party was for not offering the nation change but continuity. This is the whole basis of the Conservative offering to the nation and if she is saying it is not enough, then we need to judge her on a different measure.
If the change that Theresa May is suggesting is to take on the housing market and make home ownership available to young people then she is going to have to commit much more in funds than the £2bn pledged yesterday. At a press briefing afterwards, she is reported to admitting that this added up to only 25,000 new homes. This is not nearly enough to justify her claim to be dedicating her time as Prime Minister to this project.
The other change she mentioned in her speech is a return to intervention in the energy markets. Whether this is a good or bad thing I don’t know, but it is no more than what has been promised before, it seems to be no more than a sop to those in the hall and their peers, for whom a winter fuel crisis is a perennial possibility.
As a delegate, I sensed I should be more supportive, and I did spontaneously stand up (unlike Boris Johnson) to applaud May when her cough got so bad she had to take a break. I did feel the general pity (you would have had to have been heartless not to respond at a personal level), but I didn’t leave the hall feeling much confidence that Theresa May will be effective in months to come.
The CBI were quick with a broadly supportive response, but having been at their reception the night before, my memory was of Carolyn Fairburn’s final remark to Damian Green “we need to grow our way out of austerity”. This is a distinctly different statement than anything that came from Philip Hammond or Theresa May.
There is no big economic idea to get Britain going, the big ideas are parked as minds focus on how to manage the BREXIT. Meanwhile , the Labour party are full of big ideas and are attracting to their conferences the young thinkers who used to turn up at Conservative conferences.
Instead of marking the beginning of something different, May’s speech merely emphasised the paucity of energy and enthusiasm within the Conservative party at the moment. They are still the party of Government , but I wonder for how long.