Whether you are energised and enthused, or sick to death of post-Brexit politics, it would pay to give some attention to the last week of the British two party system’s national tour in Brighton and Manchester. Love it or loathe it, this has been a conference season like no other.
If you look closely enough, you can see the once-in-a-generation shift happening at the heart of British politics. There is now, for the first in many years, a new, clear left-right divide, crystallising around the old left-right divide of public spending and nationalisation versus the free market and the individual.
Despite the preening and the posturing that forms the bedrock of any conference season, battle lines are being drawn that may shape British political discourse for many years to come. And after Theresa May’s speech in Manchester, it’s clear that she will not be part of that future for very long.
Closing her party’s annual meeting, May hammered the last nail into the coffin marked “strong and stable”, and perhaps even ended her hope of delivering on Brexit. Just when the Tory party so badly needed a firm stake in the ground that pointed to a future that was blue – a plan to deal seriously with the shifting tectonic plates in British politics – May gave them nothing but the prospect of yet more prevarication.
First, she backed herself further into a corner on Brexit. She has left herself even more a hostage to potentially fatal outcomes. She yet again failed to come down firmly in one or other of the two camps that sit either side of the great Brexit chasm in the Tory party. She is neither aligned with Brexit zealots like Boris Johnson and Liam Fox nor the Philip Hammond-led Brexit moderates. She has to upset one side at some point and has once again kicked the task into the long grass.
She also came across as wooden and woolly, proving that she has learnt nothing from the June election campaign. There has been no serious work on her delivery (compare this with Corbyn’s clear improvement in auto-cue use and even suit choice). Nor has there been serious work on generating a big vision (compare this with Labour’s popular manifesto). There has been no serious work done on making her government seem like a government of leaders, standing up to do the difficult thing and make the difficult decisions. Compare this with Labour’s shrewd description of themselves as the “adults in the room”.
The biggest lesson ignored
As if these examples of failing to learn from your mistakes were not bad enough, there is another that trumps them all: there has been no reflection on the fact that part of the reason the Conservative party fared so badly in the election was that May had put herself at the heart of the campaigning. Without needing to pass judgement on her personal strengths and weaknesses, this personalising of the election backfired badly.
May herself acknowledged as much at the beginning of her speech when she apologised to her party for running a campaign that was too “presidential”. And yet, here she was again, front and centre, reflecting on her personal challenges, on her cabinet, her approach to work. No doubt all of this was heartfelt, but the truth is, putting yourself at the centre of the political narrative just doesn’t sell right now in British politics.
Of course, it’s easy to explain why she would take this approach. Weak leaders – leaders so weak they cannot address the real issues they face – have very little room for manoeuvre. What else can the PM talk about, if she cannot address head on the one issue driving all others?
In contrast, a strong leader would address the issues at hand. Instead of evading the big questions of the day, they address them head-on, and to hell with the consequences. What a fillip it would have been for the country at large to see a PM make a choice, take a decision, and lead.
In the short term, this further evasion of the Brexit issues means the ship of state can sail on, with May at the helm. But we should all be concerned about such weak leadership and its potential consequences. Yes, someone like May might be good for smoothing over festering divisions in a party and a nation more widely. But we only need to look to Catalonia over recent days to see how ignoring those divisions does not make them go away, and how weak leaders are the worst prepared when real crises emerge.
In short, the Conservative party, and the wider electorate, were done a disservice in this speech. They have still not been given a clear steer – Leavers or Remainers. They will be concerned about this and can only hope for a denouement of the struggle for the Tory party, whether that’s brought about by Boris Johnson or AN Other Cabinet big hitter. Messy though that may be, it will at least crystallise the Tory position, and allow the choice between the two parties on Brexit to match the choice they are beginning to offer on society writ large.