Last year’s car crash was always going to set the bar for Theresa May’s 2018 speech to the Conservative Party conference very low. It was, however, a bar May cleared with ease in her 2018 address. The terrible dancing and acknowledging the challenges she faced last year showed May unusually at ease. The content was to a large extent irrelevant to getting through it without any major disasters. That May managed was, in itself, a victory.
This was not a critical speech for Theresa May’s future. If there is one thing this conference has shown it’s that the prime minister’s authority within her own party is all but gone. The reception in the hall was fairly warm, but could not hide the fact that the only reason she is still leader is that no one in their right mind would want to take over right now. The Big Beasts who have been manoeuvring for position since at least the 2017 election must be hoping that May will stay in place until after Brexit day next year. Regardless what happens on March 29, 2019, it is certain the prime minister will be blamed for it (there is likely to be little to take “credit” for). Once past Brexit Day, May is not likely to last long.
As a result, the 2018 speech was not likely to make much of a difference to May’s future, which gave it a slightly surreal air. May did look beyond Brexit, most notably by committing to end austerity “when we’ve secured a good Brexit deal for Britain”. However, it is likely to be someone else taking credit for this Brexit dividend (should it really materialise).
May made many calls for unity, both in the party and as a country, which is reflective of the divisions sown by Brexit. The Conservative Party has spent the conference showcasing its divisions and May was obligated to try to paper them over. She did a good job name checking key figures including Sajid Javid and Ruth Davidson – which was also designed to combat the image of the party as culturally and socially narrow.
The B word?
Understandably, one name which was not mentioned was the former foreign secretary. May did nevertheless manage to make an unsubtle dig at Boris Johnson:
And to all businesses – large and small – you may have heard that there is a four-letter word to describe what we Conservatives want to do to you. It has a single syllable. It is of Anglo-Saxon derivation. It ends in the letter ‘K’. Back business.
However, despite managing to get through the speech intact (itself no mean feat), May provided nothing which could divert attention from the fact that the party is in open conflict over Brexit and that senior and junior MPs are openly challenging the leadership. Nor was there anything to break the deadlock in negotiations either between the UK and the EU27 or within the party. There was perhaps nothing May could have done considering her weak position, and the intractable nature of Brexit, which is itself indicative of the ongoing crisis of her leadership.
All in all, May survived to fight another day, but nothing changes the fact that her leadership is at the mercy of other people’s timings. As soon as the joint job of leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister ceases to be a poison chalice, May will be faced with an immediate challenge to her position – a challenge she has very little hope of beating. It is probably a relatively safe bet that this was May’s last time addressing the Conservative Party conference as leader and prime minister. As such, it was not a bad way to end.