The PM’s speech: she’s still standing

5 Oct 17

Theresa May’s calamitous set piece speech was poor in public policy terms, and the council housing expansion plans were as badly briefed as they were devised, but the PM remains on her two feet, argues Localis chief executive Liam Booth-Smith

Theresa May coughing

Photo: PA

 

“I just feel like a dog that can’t be kicked anymore,” said an unnamed Labour staffer at the height of the Gillian Duffy debacle during the 2010 general election. I’m sure they spoke for prime minister Gordon Brown and his beleaguered party that day.

Watching Theresa May splutter her way through her party conference speech I remembered this quote. After a while the jibes, insults and opprobrium begin to feel like too much. Here stands a woman, 61 years old, experienced, a life committed to public service, making her case for the British dream of a nation in which the promise of the next generation is greater than the last. The sniping and disloyalty from her own side, the hatred and saliva of her opponents, as she fought through to her final lines it all seemed, well, deeply un-British.

I agree with the Daily Telegraph’s Tim Stanley: I too have never felt more concerned for the prime minister’s personal wellbeing, and yet, yesterday was a visible sign of her move from imperial to underdog. In doing so perhaps, just maybe, the kicking might stop and we can begin again to judge Theresa May for her ambitions and not just her failures.

As for the main policy announcement of her speech, the prime minister’s instincts on housing are correct but I question her solutions. The affordable housing announcement was badly briefed. On the morning of the speech, Damian Green had the unenviable task of talking up a policy on the Today programme he didn’t seem to understand – and which eventually bore little resemblance to what was actually mentioned in her speech.

We are not going to witness a dramatic expansion in council house building as promised in The Sun. Instead we will see £2bn more put into affordable housing, which equates to approximately £400m a year. You don’t need an expert to tell you that isn’t enough. There was also too much focus on technocratic policy answers. The organ donation changes are welcome, but a) have already been announced and b) are hardly the big-ticket ideas we demand from a party conference set piece. In policy terms, I thought this was a poor speech.

Her tendency is clearly more interventionist than any recent Conservative prime minister. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, under Theresa May the Tories have less loosened the corset of socialism than drawn it tighter. The energy price cap is an Ed Miliband hangover, mass council house building is straight out of the Corbyn playbook, workers on boards and caps on executive pay are tunes from the early May catalogue but are essentially cover versions circa 1983

However, she is operating in a political climate her predecessor could not have predicted. Winning in Stoke-on-Trent South but losing in Canterbury. Securing 42.4% of the vote but surrendering her majority. Perhaps the contradictory results reflect her nature. After all she began her speech extolling the virtues of the free market and ended it insisting on more regulation and cost capping.

This doesn’t necessarily need to be a problem. The best political leaders are able to hold competing positions, much as they must hold together competing groups in their electoral coalition. The question I’m left asking is whether we hold Theresa May to a higher standard?

A quick glance at the polling numbers tells you there is still a decent slug of the population willing to put an X next to candidate representing the Conservative Party. This is not to downplay the serious issues facing the Tories, a profound crisis of intellectual confidence and its capacity to organise electorally being but two. Yet I can’t help but feel the relentless negativity about her leadership or the prospects of the party are, if not wrong, then affected and overblown. There is something faintly reminiscent of the way Jeremy Corbyn was berated, particularly by his own side, only 18 months ago.

The stage setting began to degrade around Theresa May, her main conference message decomposing, yet she remained standing. Even with little to say, by the end even this seemed like a small triumph. The faithful rose to their feet, happy for her that it was over. I think the Conservative Party has finally forgiven Theresa May. 

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