By Campaign Agent George Royce
The Conservative Party Conference set off for a planned three days on Sunday. Looming over this conference has been a battle over what position the government should take in the final months of Brexit negotiations. There have been deep-seated opinions on both sides but it comes down to the membership and the ERG, versus Theresa May and her inner circle. It's not just Brexit that the two are sparring off against, but the entire heart and soul of the party itself. On the one hand there are people in the party calling for a more business-friendly approach to corporation tax, supporting the engineering, agrifoods and fishing industries, and on the other is an argument to increase taxes on citizens to combat the deficit and making cuts to boot.
Significantly, the ERG is holding parallel events with those of the cabinet- a remarkable display of hostility within the party. Such events have been labelled fringe events and many are not being held at the same venue as the Birmingham ICC.
On the first day of any party conference you can expect some of the cabinet members and MPs to be holding events that make up the outer layer of government policy. The new Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt made a speech in which he compared the EU to the Soviet Union. He said the EU should not act like ‘a prison’ regarding the way the negotiations have been going.
Philip Hammond made a speech in which he said that the questions Labour are asking “deserve a response.” Hammond mentioned how the Labour party has changed; consequently, the way in which the party responds must be different also. He remarked that if the Tories looked like the party that wasn’t changing then “Corbyn would have a chance”. However, Hammond has repeatedly blocked funding for many of his fellow Cabinet colleague’s ideas. For example, Boris wanted to pump more money into the NHS in January but was ignored and slapped down by the Treasury. Eventually, Hammond’s arm was twisted to give the NHS £20 billion. After his speech he was asked in an interview whether he would back Brexit, but failed to do so. His approach confused members as it was one of optimism yet also lacked substance.
Leave Means Leave held a fringe event that featured Jacob Rees-Mogg et al. Some of his fellow ERG members were there to give their speeches and make their points to a packed out crowd. Brexit Central held a similar event in which Darren Grimes and his former colleagues presented a case that was economically and logistically focussed. Adamant remainers also held their own event, where strong calls for another referendum dominated discussion.
Jacob Rees-Mogg and Tim Martin of Weatherspoon held an event that talked about business post-Brexit. Rees-Mogg dismantled Chequers, explaining why it would be hurting British business. He then made the case for why SuperCanada would be the better option. It must be noted that SuperCanada or ‘CETA+++’ is exactly the White Paper that David Davis was due to publish but was held back by the Prime Minister.
Revealed in the morning papers, Theresa May shocked many in the party by offering to stay in the Customs Union. This would be betraying her own Lancaster House Speech and her commitment to keeping true to the referendum result.
The first important speech was by Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who eluded to his unhappiness at how stagnant the Conservative Party has become, stating that the party needs “good ideas” and to “stop looking back at the past.” He proclaimed that Britain needs “sustainable immigration…which means an end of freedom of movement.” Talking about the need for new arrivals to the country to integrate, he proposed a ‘values test’ that would determine how much prospective residents knew about the British way of life, alongside a language requirement for those wishing to work here. He also called for more to be done to tackle issues such as forced marriage, honour killings and female genital mutilation.
On the subject of terrorism, The Home Secretary is to criminalise foreign travel to terrorist-held territories, meaning British people flying to fight for forces such as ISIS could be stripped of their citizenship. This revoking of citizenship would also include those found guilty of being in mass gang rapes i.e. grooming gangs. Despite a powerful speech, Javid’s hall was quite empty. Many had queued up for Boris and DUP fringe events which were packed. Javid is pipped to be a frontrunner in the potential leadership election. Party members generally like him and this speech will sit very well with the core bloc.
Next to the stage was Boris Johnson who started off by condemning the lacklustre approach of his own government, stating that after 200 years of the Tory Party’s existence he was furious that it has lost confidence in freedom and democratic institutions and was aloof in submitting to foreign rule. The membership and the Tory campaigners that made up the majority of the audience gave rapturous applause and many instances of “hear hear”. Again he pointed out how his own government has failed to inspire the younger generation and suggested the party “believe in basic conservative ideas”. Going on the offensive, he lamented the Labour party and talked about how Corbyn’s nationalisation would “wreck the economy” and cause uncertainty. The housing crisis has been a problem that the Tories have failed to tackle and for this, he claimed it was an opportunity to help the young with their own resources i.e. creating more affordable homes. He referenced how he met many voters his age who “would vote Tory for a lifetime, thanks to Margaret Thatcher allowing them to buy their own home.”
Moving onto his crescendo, he directly spoke to the many “ConHomers” in the crowd, referring to the membership that had amassed in the hall. The rows were filled with younger Tory members and activists who are aligned with Thatcher, Rees-Mogg and Boris’ views and now make up a large portion of the youth movement. He stated the Chequers plan would greatly limit the scope of free trade deals the UK could do with emerging markets around the world. Boris commented it would be “wrong to leave on Chequers terms, locked in the tractor beam of Brussels” before claiming the the plan to be “dangerous and unstable”. He also added “do not believe you can get it wrong now and then fix it later; fix it now!”. Many times throughout this segment of his speech he paused while the crowd cheered, whistled and applauded, filling the room with their approval.
Steve Baker was interviewed immediately after by Sky News for his comment on the speech; asked about Boris’ support of SuperCanda compared to May’s Chequers plan he said “4 out of 5 members are against Chequers.” He was referring to the people attending the conference to who he had personally spoken to. Beth Rigby shone light on this disparity, stating "There is a split in the party, where the membership is against what Theresa May is trying to do".
Theresa May came onto the stage to ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’, displaying the dance moves that got her widespread coverage during her Africa tour. Some people thought it was a good mockery of herself while others physically cringed in the crowd. At this point it was known to the public that James Duddridge, a Tory MP, had just sent his letter of no confidence to the 1922 Committee. He explained on Twitter that he believes the only policy that matters to the nation is Brexit and why he doesn’t believe this will happen under Theresa May. Some were angered at the timing, others were not surprised.
Starting off, she talked about the need to build more homes and announced a government plan to build more council houses, remarking that the British public need to know that “austerity is coming to an end.” This comment made people in the crowd unsure whether or not to applaud. It would mean that spending would increase but how, when or where was not clearly stated. This could have been a point to counter Corbyn and his agenda to increase public spending, borrowing around £500 billion in the process.
She went onto say many slogans that were aimed to Labour backbenchers as she said Corbyn’s Labour 'rejects the common values that once bridged our political divide'. This struck a chord with some Brexiteers as it appeared she was trying to start a murmur of getting Labour votes in the Commons.
After a few minutes dedicated to ‘shared values’, she finally unveiled a glimpse of where the new £20 billion investment into the NHS was going, as she talked about her goddaughter’s death from cancer. The next policy announcement was that fuel duty is going to be freezed, which pleased many throughout the crowd.
Everyone in the hall was waiting with baited breath for her to mention anything on Chequers and Brexit. However, she closed her speech without mentioning Chequers but rather alluding to why her plan is still on the table. She jabbed at Boris, saying Brexiteers should support her way or risk not getting Brexit at all, at which point the ground was noticeably silent.
There were nervous faces before the speech, as it was rumoured May had developed a cough again. Although the speech didn’t reveal anything groundbreaking, she did make it through without any noteworthy gaffs. Nonetheless, many MPs were left bewildered that she hadn’t mentioned Chequers, thus not acknowledging that the overwhelming majority of Tory members and heads of associations do not support it. Nothing has really been solved then, and the party is still in turmoil behind the scenes.
Sources and further reading
Lizzy Buchan, ‘Conservative Party accidentally leak MPs' and journalists' phone numbers through its conference app’, The Independent (29 September 2018)
Jack Maidment, ‘Conservative Party conference day one: Jeremy Hunt compares EU to USSR and accuses bloc of holding UK 'prisoner', The Telegraph (30 September 2018)
James Forsyth, ‘The problem with Philip Hammond’s speech’, The Spectator (1 October 2018)
Sam Lister and Anna Lewis, ‘Waiters will get to keep all tips under new law, says UK Government’, Wales Online (1 October 2018)
Kate Dickinson, ‘Gove pledges £15m to reduce UK food waste’, Resource (3 October 2018)
Mikey Smith, ‘Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin ambushed by anti-Brexit protesters at Tory Conference’, The Mirror (2 October 2018)
Oliver Wright, Sam Coates and Francis Elliot, ‘May agrees curbs on trade to break Brexit deadlock’, The Times (2 October 2018)
James Grierson and Peter Walker, ‘Sajid Javid backs plans for stricter citizenship rules after Brexit’, The Guardian (2 October 2018)
Andrew Sparrow, ‘All Tuesday's big events at the Tory party conference – as they happened’, The Guardian (2 October 2018)
Joe Duggan, ‘DEATH OF POLITICAL CORRECTNESS? Javid warns no-hiding place for evil grooming gangs’, The Express (2 October 2018)
Brexit Central, ‘Boris Johnson speech to Conservative Party Conference’, Brexit Central (2 October 2018)
Kevin Schofield, ‘Boris Johnson: Tories must embrace traditional Conservative values to beat Jeremy Corbyn’, Politics Home (1 October 2018)
Oliver Duff, ‘Boris Johnson made an upbeat pitch to true-blue Tories, but its still not clear he’ll ever be PM’, iNews (2 October 2018)
Owen Bennett, ‘Boris Johnson launches no-holds barred attack on Theresa May's Brexit plan in highly-anticipated conference speech’, City A.M. (2 October 2018)
ITV Report, ‘Theresa May dances to ABBA's Dancing Queen at Conservative Party Conference’, ITV (3 October 2018)
Nicholas Cecil and Joe Murphy, ‘Boris Johnson ally James Duddridge calls for leadership vote’, Evening Standard (3 October 2018)
Tom Edgington, ‘Reality Check: What are the plans to boost council homes?’, BBC (3 October 2018)
Steven Swinford, ‘How Theresa May won over Conservative conference with dancing, jokes and Corbyn attacks’, The Telegraph (3 October 2018)
Laura Donnelley, ‘Theresa May tells tragic tale of her god daughter's cancer death as she announces new NHS plan’, The Telegraph (3 October 2018)
Tom Raynar, ‘Theresa May chucks the word Chequers - but not the policy’, Sky News (3 October 2018)
Jamie Robertson, ‘What is a ‘Canada-style’ trade deal?’, BBC (25 September 2018)
Image: Number 10 @flickr