Don’t underestimate the conference job Theresa May has on her hands

By Chris Rogers September 29, 2016 2:11 pm

As delegates head home from Liverpool and weary political correspondents prepare for their fourth party conference, thoughts inevitably turn to how one would sum up the Labour conference.

At best it was a mixed bag. There is no real sense that the conference has healed the rift between Jeremy Corbyn and many within the parliamentary party. The event was riddled with some high profile gaffes that overshadowed the speeches themselves. Andy Burnham stepped down from the shadow cabinet live on stage – although it was always a case of when rather than if that would happen given his candidacy for the Manchester mayoralty. Jeremy Corbyn’s proposals (such as for a National Education Service) have received swift criticism.

On a more positive note, there were stand out performances from Sadiq Khan and Tom Watson (although questions remain over the latter’s future as deputy leader). And, whether you liked or loathed the content, Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in giving his keynote speech was far more confident than last year and tallied with Sadiq Khan’s call for Labour to push for electoral victory rather than merely fighting the good fight.

But overall, the conference did not impose the sense that Labour are about to overturn the polling figures and pry either control or impetus away from the Conservatives.

And so to Birmingham and the Tory conference. Many would expect this to be a high-spirited, optimistic affair. They are, after all, the party of government, brought back together after a fractious referendum campaign under a new Prime Minister who has been swift to establish her position.

Surely then, Theresa May has a job far easier than Jeremy Corbyn over the coming days?

Actually, Mrs May could face a job that, in many respects, is as difficult – albeit in very different ways – as Mr Corbyn’s.

The Prime Minister will doubtless be greeted at conference with warmth and acclaim. And yet the honeymoon period is most definitely over. There is dissention in the ranks. Just today, former Cabinet stalwart and party grandee Ken Clarke has accused Mrs May of running a “government with no policies” and having no plan for the UK’s departure for the EU.

Some within the Tory backbenches (and indeed perhaps the frontbenches as well) have reacted with consternation to the PM’s plans to expand grammar schools. And Europe continues to be the thorn in the Conservative side, with some within the party wanting a swift triggering of Article 50 and others wanting a more considered approach.

That’s not to suggest any rifts within the Tory ranks are as profound as those of their opponents. They continue to hold the whip hand in UK politics, with the potential to continue doing so for quite some time. But equally, the conference offers – indeed almost requires – Theresa May to push on from her first months in Downing Street. In the coming days she will have to shore up support for policies such as grammar schools – and will be under pressure to give a better explanation than “Brexit means Brexit.”

The mood will be positive. But after Labour’s travails, it would be a mistake to think the conference is plain sailing for the new Prime Minister.

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