The prime minister’s closing speech to the Conservative conference in Manchester mattered to those who packed the hall or thronged round the screens outside. Not because the coughing ‘derailed’ the event or because it led to talk of May’s removal. Rather, because it gave them the opportunity to play their part in Britain’s democracy. They go to hear from the country’s leaders, to listen as they report on progress and plans, and to judge those they have put in power. And they go to question as many of them as they can at the fringe, bringing their own voice to the debate over policy.
Much of that was lost in the media hype led by the BBC, initially that the conference lacked ‘fizz’, then that Boris Johnson was upstaging everyone else, and finally that May’s speech provided a chaotic finale. The scene was set for the government’s enemies (and in particular the enemies of May and Johnson) to prophesy the end of Mrs May. George Osborne’s Evening Standard reported that ‘five former ministers’ and others (his band of acolytes and the rump of remainers) were calling for May’s imminent removal and that Boris be disciplined or sacked for stealing the limelight. Yet the reality is that the conference in Manchester gives the audience and the electorate nationally the chance to judge and consider how the government is doing.
Theresa May’s proposals are designed to help others realise their ‘British dream’ just as her own grandmother, a domestic servant, had realised hers. She declared herself committed to an aspirational society of home ownership, for which thousands of affordable homes, both council and ‘help to buy’ are on the way; to a welcome brake on student fees, and a review of the nightmare implications posed for younger people of her predecessors’ university policy; to a cap on energy costs so the ‘big six’ reflect the retail price in the bills for domestic customers. For some there was too little Thatcher and too much state; but then Butskellism – the peculiar post-war blending of a market to a ‘state command’ economy characterised by the policies of the Tory chancellor Butler and his Labour opposite number, Hugh Gaitskell – has been creeping back ever since the ‘90s. May’s defence of an open capitalist society and the rule of law may persuade the market minded to give her prescription a fair wind without their having much faith in its healing powers. Above all, though, it is the decency and integrity to which she has returned the Conservative party and the public face of politics in party and country, having seen off George Osborne’s bid for power, that counts.
In tackling without personal rancour a legacy of mistakes, missed opportunity and failure at home and abroad, she has given a lead. Nowhere is this more obvious than in dealing with the consequences of the disastrous interventions in the Mediterranean and the Middle East of predecessor governments, on which she and the foreign secretary have been quietly steadfast in returning the UK to its traditional path of tempered intervention in foreign escapades and a grown-up policy of pursuing Britain’s true interests which include promoting stability and a safer (and better) world to the benefit of the many. She has also made a commitment to Brexit, the full Brexit, from the first days of power.
What May has been to the integrity, decency and stability on which voters count, Boris is to Brexit and the brighter future after March 2019, in which they place their hopes. Though there was not much of a focus on Brexit in the official proceedings, probably because of the cast of remainers in the cabinet and the wish to keep the EU ‘sweet’, vain as this may be, there was no shortage of it at the fringe. MPs and delegates considered – and often resolved – the intricacies of trade law, the nature of customs controls in a digital age, the reality of free trade for the City of London’s global financial sector, the closing chapter on ECJ rule, the basis for the ‘borderless’ border in Ireland, the restoration of fishing rights and the economics of farming.
For many realists the likelihood of a transition agreement is small: what the electorate decided and what the EU want are incompatible. May’s Florence speech offered a cornucopia to the EU to unlock the trade negotiations, with a mention of £20bn. As ministers rally to Mrs May, they must put their departments to work. The message from Manchester’s fringe for an interim agreement on leaving the EU is clear: no payment without Free Trade, no extension for the European Court and no more EU law. It is unlikely that the EU will agree. For a smooth exit in March 2019 Britain must prepare to leave the EU for good.