What does Theresa May want to achieve from this week’s conference? No-one seems sure. There are some in No 10 who would be content so long as she survives it without a coughing fit. Others have higher hopes – that she could reset the dial and reinvigorate her flagging premiership. What seems most likely, however, is that the event will descend into a leadership parade that plays a role in deciding who the next Tory prime minister is.
This year’s conference has already got off to a bad start for the Prime Minister thanks to a massive data breach courtesy of CCHQ’s conference app and a bad-tempered appearance by the Maybot on Marr (James has all the gruesome details here). The papers have a few traces of conference announcements. The Prime Minister has announced there will be a Brexit festival to mark this moment of ‘national rejuvenation’ and then there’s plans to increase stamp duty for foreign buyers. However, that announcement has lost its bite somewhat thanks to the fact party chairman Brandon Lewis suggested the hike would be lower than listed in paper reports.
It’s hardly the bold agenda May’s MPs have been crying out for – privately and publicly – in recent weeks. No-one in government seems confident that a big agenda-setting policy or vision is in the offing. There’s still a debate about what will make up Theresa May’s ambitiously titled Campaign 2022 leader’s speech. Although soft words about Brexit had been planned, a harsher tone could be adopted – recent Tory focus groups found that voters responded well to the Prime Minister looking decisive and telling Brussels to show the UK respect. On the domestic agenda, I understand we can look forward to details of how exactly the extra NHS funding will be spent.
With no vision in sight, the main source of interest looks set to be how future leadership hopefuls are positioning themselves. Tory ministers are currently contenting themselves taking swipes at one another over Twitter but this will move to the conference hall and fringes as of this afternoon. Most ministers – and every leadership hopeful – are listed to do an ‘in conversation with’ so expect a glimpse of what they could bring if they ever happened to find their way into No 10. Boris Johnson will have his Brexit rally – but others to watch are Sajid Javid – now tipped as the ‘stop Boris’ candidate and Dominic Raab who is tipped as the ‘stop Sajid’ candidate. Unless May can give her party a reason to think she is the right person to lead them into the next election, all attention will be on who is.