‘I know he’s a good general, but is he lucky?’ Napoleon used to ask. Theresa May was certainly a lucky politician when she ran for the Tory leadership. Her rivals imploded one after another in that contest leaving May the victor. But in recent months, May hasn’t had much luck. Today, it was truly atrocious.
This speech was meant to be the moment that May rebooted her premiership. But few people will recall what she said today. Instead, they will remember the three disasters that befell this speech. First, a comedian making it to the conference stage and handing her a mock P45. Second, her voice not just croaking but actually going. Sitting in the hall, there were moments when I thought that someone else would have to finish the speech for her. Just when you thought that nothing else could go wrong, one of the letters on the conference stage backdrop fell off. No wonder some of those closest to her looked so glum as they left Manchester.
The initial Tory reaction has been sympathy. It is impossible not to admire her pluck in getting to the end of that speech despite her voice going so early in it. She is nothing if not determined.
However, the speech showed that the May’s domestic agenda still isn’t big enough or radical enough. Her announcement on more social housing will result in around 25,000 more homes being built. This is a good thing but doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. The Tories need a massive house building programme, one that frees up homes to buy as well as rent. They need to be reversing the fall in home ownership, which is now at a thirty year low, before the next election. After all, you can’t expect those without capital to be capitalists.
The other big announcement was an energy price cap. This sat rather oddly with her robust defence of free markets.
This week has been a missed opportunity for the Tories. They haven’t seized the political agenda and what announcements there have been, have been overshadowed by presentational fumbles and their own divisions. I suspect that as Tory MPs reflect this weekend it will be the paucity of the May domestic agenda that worries them more than anything else.
There is now even more pressure on the Budget. It has to not only find a way to pay for the various new Tory spending commitments but also give the government a much needed sense of political purpose.