May woos the ‘new centre ground’ with her closing speech to Conference

Whilst little of the rhetoric was new, the Prime Minister set out her vision for a Britain built on the values of ‘fairness and opportunity.’

A good conference speech can be the making of a politician – just ask Theresa May’s predecessor. David Cameron owed his leadership of the Conservatives to two speeches, – one he gave himself which was well received and another given by his rival David Davis which ‘flopped’.

Theresa May emerges from Birmingham this week with her authority enhanced, having delivered two key note speeches of her own.

Today’s speech was the Prime Minister’s second address to Conference, having kicked off proceedings on Sunday with a heavily trailed speech on Brexit which outlined the timing of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, her plans for a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ and which all but confirmed the UK would be leaving the Single Market.

Having thrown plenty of red meat to Tory Eurosceptics on Sunday, today’s much anticipated speech was an opportunity for the Prime Minister to outline her vision for a post-Brexit Britain, and to flesh out (at long last!) her domestic policy agenda.

To thundering applause, the PM was introduced by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, as a true feminist who has “done more for women than any pink election buses Labour can launch.”

The Prime Minister bounced on stage to the strains of “Start Me Up” of Rolling Stones fame, a song supposedly about sexual arousal – but enough about that please!.

Addressing delegates, the Prime Minister set out her vision for a Britain:

“…built on the values of fairness and opportunity – where everyone plays by the same rules and where every single person, regardless of their background or that of their parents, is given the chance to be all they want to be.”

Whilst little of the rhetoric was new, the Prime Minister laid out a powerful exposition of her political values, identifying tackling unfairness and injustice as the core themes of her premiership.

She kicked-started proceedings with a humorous and clever slap down of her Foreign Secretary, commenting that Boris had miraculously stayed on message for a full four days.

There was also generous tribute to her predecessor, David Cameron, who she described as “a great leader of our party, a great servant of our country.” A man, much like herself in 2002, had “challenged us to change.” Heck, there was even a nod to George Osborne and the Northern Powerhouse. It seems that team May has finally come to its senses and concluded there was little to be gained from picking a scrap with the Cameroons.

The Prime Minister was generously collegial, name-checking her colleagues, singing the praises of her “impressive” Home Secretary, the “passionate” Jeremy Hunt, the “excellent” Defence Secretary and the economic stewardship of the Greg Clarke and Philip Hammond. Though she singularly failed to name check Liam Fox.

Her speech was delivered against a backdrop of depressing economic news. The IMF today cut its forecast for British economic growth whilst the fallout from the PM’s ‘hard Brexit’ speech on Sunday prompted the pound to fall yesterday to a 31-year low against the US dollar.

But this seemed to matter little. The speech might have been short on rhetorical flourishes, but the Tory faithful loved it.

The Prime Minister drew her biggest applause when she affirmed that her Government would:

“never again – in any future conflict – let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave – the men and women of Britain’s Armed Forces.”

It was not all traditional Tory territory. She made an explicit pitch for blue collar Labour voters disillusioned with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. To loud cheers she proclaimed: “We the Conservative Party truly are the party of the workers.”

But there was little, by means of any new policy announcements.

We had already heard earlier in the week of her government’s commitment to increase housebuilding, to crackdown on executive pay and plans for more workers to serve on company boards.

There was some attempt to unpackage what her new ‘industrial strategy’, with the Prime Minister emphasising that it was ‘not about picking winners, or bringing old companies back from the dead’ but nothing that would set the world on fire.

At a macro-policy level, she signalled that the Government was prepared to take a more interventionist approach in the economy, noting that “where markets are dysfunctional, we should be prepared to intervene” and highlighted areas such as housing, energy and broadband where the government should step in. She even promised change to current Bank of England monetary policy, arguing that super-low interest rates and quantitative easing has caused negative side effects (although quite how this change would be delivered is not clear).

Her speech was noticeably light on foreign policy, all the more surprising given the central thrust of her economic arguments related to the apparent failure of globalization. She affirmed the Government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on international aid, as well as her support for the Paris climate change treaty, but singularly failed to talk about Syria, Trident, or the big geo-political struggles of our age.

Her steely performances at the despatch box in recent weeks had drawn comparisons with Mrs Thatcher. After today’s speech however, no such parallels will be drawn any time soon. Mrs May jettisoned Mrs Thatcher’s famous maxim “there’s no such thing as society” by stating quite unequivocally: “Remember the good that Government can do.”

Rejecting the ideological labels of left and right, the Prime Minister argued it was time for a new approach that recognised:

“while government does not have all the answers, government can and should be a force for good; that the state exists to provide what individual people, communities and markets cannot; and that we should employ the power of government for the good of the people.”

The rhetoric could easily have been mistaken for a speech her predecessor might have delivered (think ‘Compassionate Conservatism’). But then the speech took a dramatic about turn.

Draping herself in the Union Jack, the PM turned her fire on those sneering, unpatriotic political elites, who found patriotism “distasteful” and concerns over immigration as “parochial.” It was only a matter of weeks ago Mrs May was a member of the same ‘sneering elite.’ How times have changed!

She attacked the condescending views of the political establishment who seem “bewildered” by the fact that more than 17 million people voted for Britain to leave the European Union. “Just listen to the way a lot of politicians and commentators talk about the public” she observed, “they find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient.” The subliminal message to the rest of the country could not have been clearer: she was not a member of any Notting Hill set. She understood the economic struggles of ordinary Britons, and was on our side.

Some of her more pointed criticisms were directed at the Labour party, who the PM charged had “no monopoly on compassion” and which paraded around with a “sanctimonious pretence of moral superiority.” In what was, perhaps, the cleverest line of the entire speech, the Prime Minister reworked her most famous quote, ‘you know what some people call them, the nasty party”

The Prime Minister did not name check the Labour leader directly, but the contrast between the Prime Minister’s speech and the hapless Jeremy Corbyn’s could not have been starker. Hers was a tour de force for grown up, serious politics. Her clever annexation of the political space once occupied by the Liberal Democrats and New Labour stood in stark contrast to the angry, ideological mob assembled in Liverpool last week who spoke to the fringes of society.

As the Prime Minister left to a thunderous ovation from the Tory faithful (which was rather drowned out by the strains of “Mr Blue Sky”), she will know that she has a bruising few months ahead of her.

Her honeymoon period won’t last much beyond the Conference hall, as she first prepares for a difficult Autumn Budget, grapples in earnest with Brexit negotiations, attempts to defuse a growing row over grammar schools and keeps her disgruntled backbenchers in check over boundary reform.

Yet with her closing speech to Conference, the Prime Minister firmly positioned the Conservatives as the standard bearers of the pragmatic, mainstream – or as she herself put it – “new centre ground.”

It is safe to say that no Prime Minister’s conference speech has been so eagerly anticipated. The weight of expectation this week must have been huge. But under such pressure, Theresa May delivered a clear and passionate exposition of her political values at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham – not once, but twice.

Whilst a snap general election remains unlikely, today’s speech will have done nothing to dampen speculation that CCHQ and Tory activists are under starter’s orders. Time will tell whether the Prime Minister is bold enough to seize the opportunity to win an election in her own right, and with it, a place in the history books.

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