Theresa Stumbles…But Will She Fall?

Theresa May's SpeechAgainst a backdrop of a downbeat party, an opposition riding high in the polls, Boris, and a nasty cough, this was never going to be an easy speech for Theresa May. And it wasn’t.

In the run up to the conference, when the Tories are traditionally rallying around demonstrating why people voted for them and poking fun at Labour factionalism, the Tories were facing their own bout of the Bojos and wondering who would be delivering the Leader’s speech next year.

Never one of politics natural orators Theresa May took to the stage looking fragile, and indeed, she delivered a stuttering speech through a spluttering cough. Depending on your position this is a laudable show of resolution and grit or an allegory of where the Tory party are right now. The cough was only part of the problem for Mrs May, as she was also treated to a comedian handing her a P45, while the stage literally fell apart around her.

But what of the content? We were told to expect some substantial promises on social housing and possibly a relaxation of salary caps. What we got was certainly different from the confident, pre-snap election May. This was a more humble, human, frail Theresa May who started her speech with an apology to the party for failing them during the election.  Perhaps for the first time she allowed us to see some of her personality and her (very) private beliefs. She spoke about her regret at not having children and some of the human tragedies she had witnessed over the years, as well as celebrating the success of the Tories in Government. She is not a rabble rouser like Jeremy Corbyn and she is not radical like John McDonnell. She is calm and unflappable. She showed resolve. She even managed to ad lib, prompting much laughter and applause from the audience, most likely in surprise that she managed it, as the P45 comedian was led from the room.

But the actual content of the speech was disappointing, and largely bereft of new ideas. She reiterated her commitment to one nation Toryism, first stated during her bid to become leader of the Conservatives, and outlined plans to move the party back to the centre. She committed to cap energy prices (an idea borrowed from Ed Miliband) which represents a significant departure from her determination to defend free markets. She talked about winning round young people who believe in consumer choice and helping them on the property ladder. But the silver vote that George Osborne so ardently chased, was barely mentioned – a failing she should have avoided after the snap election.

Her trailed “substantial” announcement on housing fell flat too. Although she said developers would be held to account and they would ‘fix the broken housing market’, there is still no timetable for the Housing White Paper and only an extra £2 billion for provision of new social housing. This was not what councils or the industry were hoping for. One London Labour council leader has already suggested she may have meant £200bn but coughed at the crucial moment, and the Lib Dems have calculated that the fund would deliver 15 homes a year in each authority in England.

She also avoided the contentious subjects of Brexit, pay for Government workers, and other topical issues. This freed up valuable time for a bit of Corbyn bashing which always goes down well with the party faithful.

The speech was well enough received in the hall and Boris has fallen back into line for now, so she may have given herself enough breathing space to get her to Christmas. It certainly wasn’t enough to stop the plotting and not enough to reach out to the voters the Tories appear to have lost to Labour. It looks like a bleak winter for Mrs May, or should that be, Winter is coming?