Theresa May and being bold in Birmingham

Ah, the Conservative Party conference!  Always something to quicken the heart: I love warm white wine, yellow food and no mobile phone charge.  And this year, post-referendum and with a new government in post there was much to look forward to as I sat on the Pendolino rushing up to Birmingham through the sunny Midlands countryside.

My first thought was for Nick Timothy.  This conference marks his triumphant return to his home town as arguably the most important man (NB: man) in the country.  The ghost of his idol Joseph Chamberlain will hover in the background of this conference: how many pieces to camera will be done from Highbury Hall in the next few days?  But there is a chance that Timothy right now is at the peak of his powers.  Arguably the big things so far with his fingerprints on them – delaying Hinkley Point, reviving grammar schools – have not gone well.  And also that the current practice of filtering everything through him and his co-Chief of Staff has to be changed if the Government is not to be sclerotically indecisive and permanently cautious.

Proving that this administration is not drifting and is not just about delivering Brexit is surely the main point of this week.  Having allowed Ministers to express their personal opinions on the EU all summer Theresa May promised finally to provide more detail on the Brexit negotiations in an unusually early intervention on Sunday afternoon.

And while May got a lot of headlines by making clear that Article 50 will be invoked by next Easter she did not say enough to put the issue to bed, let alone to convince the headbangers of Leave and Remain. How could she?  She couldn’t commit firmly either to a hard and rapid divorce or to effectively no divorce at all.  That would be a crazy negotiating stance, and would fly in the face of her safety-first nature.  So despite her best efforts the debate about what Brexit ought to mean goes on, and this conference will be remembered overwhelming for talk about our relationship with the European Union, talk of how Brexit is affecting relationships between Ministers, and talk of whether Number 10 is playing fair.

Nevertheless, the Prime Minister and her Ministers will make a smattering of policy announcements this week to try to look like a purposeful team with a wide range of concerns and interests and a broad agenda for change.   It seems inconceivable that there will be any further health reforms, but there will be discussion of education for sure.  Expect flesh on the ‘making Capitalism work for everyone’ bones, and some hints about improving Britain’s infrastructure.  The question is: will they be big, bold and imaginative enough to distract attention from Brexit?

That, really, is the nub of it: does Theresa May and the team around her have it in them to think big?  So far it appears not: she has been ultra-cautious since she entered Downing Street, barely commenting at all and spending a lot of time walking the Alps.  She has rightly been praised for calming everyone down after a hysterical June and early July, but there comes a point when saying nothing looks like you have nothing to say.  I hope the Prime Minister will use this week to set out a big and exciting vision for the future of the country, and to stop us only talking about Brexit.  I strongly suspect she will not.

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