Will it be Manchester united for Theresa May and the Tories?
PUBLISHED: 13:48 29 September 2017
Not many people believed Theresa May would still be the leader of the Conservatives by the time annual conference came around.
In the hours after the exit polls, before the final result was even known, ministerial smart phones were buzzing, plots were starting to form and allegiances were being made.
Somehow she managed to cling to power. Exactly how remains unclear but it certainly involved some kind of deal with the big beasts of her cabinet. Since then that deal has tied her hands: she cannot deliver the discipline needed from a leader for the party to move in a unified direction.
The main issue, of course, is Brexit. It is the issue that catapulted Mrs May to power but also the issue that splits her government. As quickly as the events immediately following the vote to leave the European Union crowned Mrs May, the ongoing negotiations could see her out of the top role. These are, and will remain, delicate and difficult times for the government.
And to add to the problems for the Tories the Labour Party is surging. They are ahead in the polls and full of enthusiasm and confidence. Of course, Labour is a party as deeply divided over Brexit as the Tories, but behind Jeremy Corbyn their front bench has at least united.
Here in the East the vast Tory majority wants Mrs May to hold on. The last thing our MPs want is another snap election especially after a few were run closer than expected last time.
Elections are tough and put a great deal of pressure on MPs – especially if their party is on the defensive. The Tories here in the East want to get on with their jobs so most will be hoping for a successful conference for Mrs May.
The latest news out of the Brexit negotiations offers something of a mixed bag for Mrs May. She will be pleased that her speech in Florence was welcomed by the EU’s lead negotiator Michel Barnier but the priase was hardly glowing.
Mr Barnier said: “We are far from being at the state where we will be able to say, ‘Yes, there has been sufficient progress on the principles of this orderly withdrawal.” He later added though that it would take a “miracle” to move talks on to trade anytime soon.
But the harder Brexiteers in the Tory party will again be calling for Britain to take a tougher line with Brussels.
This kind of rhetoric form the EU angers many within the Conservative Party and for them Mrs May’s Florence speech was seen as a retreat.
One such person is Jacob Rees-Mogg, the current darling of the right of the party who claims he has no desire to topple Mrs May – but won’t rule out standing to become leader. Mr Rees-Mogg will deliver an almost superhuman nine speeches at conference in just 48 hours. He will focus on subjects as diverse as Brexit, the resurgence of the hard Left and the free market.
Expect Mr Rees-Mogg to be a hit in Manchester. With Boris Johnson’s popularity waning Mr Rees-Mogg will be seen by some in the party as the Tories’ best chance to win against Mr Corbyn. He stands a real chance in a run off for leader even after making his controversial views on homosexuality and abortion known.
For many backbenchers though this will prove an opportunity to regroup – whether that is behind the leader or not. Conference allows fractions to meet up away from the normal pressures of Westminster. Already in run up to Manchester a cross-party letter signed by scores of Tory MPs has been made public urging the government to act on its promise on energy caps.
Mrs May simply does not have the majority needed to take on her backbenchers.
For Norwich North MP Chloe Smith conference will also be a chance to put a tricky general election – she held her seat by just 507 votes – behind her while attending fringes focusing on her new Northern Ireland brief as a parliamentary under secretary.
She said: “I’m looking forward to conference where I’ll be sharing my time between seeing party members and some Northern Ireland responsibilities. The PM has set the right tone already with a speech emphasising how every generation gets better living standards in the free market, so we’ll be focusing on why Conservatives stand for the economy, responsibility, freedom and opportunity.”
This will either be a turning point for Mrs May or a continuation of her problems.