By Kenneth Pritchard
Expectations were high ahead of Conservative Party Conference this year. The party had work to do in convincing the public and the media that the party was not at risk of splitting down the middle over Brexit and the lack of support for Theresa May. The last four days in Birmingham have shown that the Conservatives are working hard to make sure that they do not lose grip on the keys to Number 10, but they are failing to reach voters at home.
CCHQ had a tough act to follow after Labour’s Conference in Liverpool. Corbyn led a professional conference with a Party that seemed to be united for the most part. The Party even managed a set of reasonable policy announcements that spoke to voters – such as free childcare and growing the green economy in Britain – with a few more radical exceptions.
However, the Conservatives failed to grab headlines and missed opportunities to speak to voters in the way that Labour did. Aside from the announcement on civil partnerships and a freeze on fuel duty, there was a lack of any policies that will reverberate outside the Westminster echo chamber and into living rooms up and down the country. While the message of “opportunity” was well branded around Birmingham, how that will reach voters remains to be seen.
On the ground, the party did seem broadly unified, but the media is telling a different story thanks to the blond protagonist, Boris Johnson. When Boris Johnson held a fringe event with ConservativeHome on Tuesday afternoon, he shone a spotlight on the divisions in the party. The packed room with well over 1,000 people – members and journalists mainly – crammed in to hear Johnson set out his plan for the country. He hijacked the energy and conversations in the ICC. His speech was seemingly inescapable, but as usual with Johnson he provided little evidence-based policy ideas or details and plenty of laughs. The people who applauded his words were the people who already supported him.
Sure, he made headlines and he held the room in a way that only Boris can. But those who applauded his performance in that room were in the minority this Conference. The majority of the members see him as a threat to the unity that they so desperately want the Prime Minister and their party to show the rest of the public, leaving Labour to continue picking at their divisions in opposition. The sense on the ground from members, almost unanimously, was that Johnson was betraying the party. While Johnson is the celebrity candidate members of the party are turning on him as he threatens the party’s reputation.
Theresa May took Johnson head-on in her closing speech to Conference. In her most entertaining, personable, authentic and well-crafted speech since she took office, May closed the door to those that want her gone from Number 10. Her speech brought back the broad church ideals that so many of the Conservative members have been waiting for. Celebrating the diversity of background of her Cabinet, congratulating Ruth Davidson and her partner on their first child and setting out a tranche of policies aimed at making positive change, including lifting the cap on council borrowing to build houses. May gave the impression that she knows her flaws and she made them her own, letting the party see just why she deserves the position of Prime Minister. However, her policies won’t make the headlines over her performance.
The response to May’s speech seems to have been broadly positive and without a doubt, the ‘Dancing Queen’ stole the show and seized the opportunity to show her true potential.