This month marked the beginning of the Conservative Party’s Annual Conference in Birmingham. Many topics were discussed in the conference, the main one being the ongoing Brexit negotiations. Even before Theresa May’s keynote speech, Boris Johnson and other Brexiteers spared no time in again criticising the divisive Chequers plan, arguing that it is a ‘half-in, half-out’ Brexit and that it will embolden those who are demanding a second referendum. But it seems that Cabinet members are all behind the Chequers plan, believing it is the best possible compromise that allows the UK to be independent from the EU whilst also maintaining a mutually beneficial bond with the union.
Theresa May’s ardent defence of the Chequers plan was again seen in this year’s speech, whilst highlighting the divisions within her party on the direction Brexit should take. Immediately, she rules out a second referendum, arguing that everyone should honour the referendum result and that MPs have a duty to deliver it. She goes further by referring back to the recent EU meeting in Salzburg. A meeting in which EU leaders rejected the Chequers plan and instead offered to keep Northern Ireland in the EU Customs Union, which the UK rejected. If accepted, this would risk fracturing and breaking up the UK, which seems ever more likely after the recent announcement by Plaid Cymru’s new leader Adam Price, preaching the idea of Welsh independence being on the table after Brexit. This is on top of the ongoing dangers of the SNP campaigning for a new Scottish independence referendum and Northern Ireland uniting with Ireland. Whilst rejecting the initial deal offered by the EU for the sake of keeping the UK united was wise, the UK can still break up if a no-deal scenario was to play out. Therefore, for Theresa May to say that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, reiterating that the UK is unafraid to turn away from negotiations, is not the best idea.
The slogan for the Conservative Party Conference was simply ‘Opportunity’, again echoing the rosy picture that the party wants to paint Britain’s future, especially after Brexit. May’s speech frequently referred back to the idea of opportunity, constantly portraying how forward-thinking the party is, both in terms of economic and social factors. Her mentioning of Sajid Javid, the first person of Asian descent to be in a major Cabinet position echoes the image of a progressive and modern party. This is an important move, especially since the UK’s two main parties are in extremely difficult and unfavourable situations, with recent anti-Semitic behaviour within the Labour Party and Boris Johnson’s Islamophobic comments towards Muslims wearing burkas. Both parties are facing an identity crisis, and the Conservatives need a stronger mandate, which they can only do by wooing Labour Party voters over to the right, already hinting at an end to austerity in her speech. But the Labour Party chair Ian Lavery immediately dismissed this, accusing the Conservatives of resorting to ‘desperate pleas in an attempt to revive her failing administration’. It seems, even at a time when the country desperately needs to unite in the face of Brexit, there are deep divisions no amount of wooing and blaming from both sides can fix.
As well as Brexit and opportunity, May mentioned other key policies, particularly the mass investment towards the NHS. An extra £394 million per week was given as part of the NHS’ 70th anniversary. As part of the investment, a new Cancer Strategy is going to be enforced to improve early detection rates from one-in-two today, to three-in-four by 2028. Again, trying to change the image of the Conservatives, May tried to highlight the work the party has done to make sure the NHS is still one of the best healthcare services in the world. But no matter how much the party claims to have done, it is not enough to convince those who have suffered at the face of increasing strain on NHS resources and funding cuts. Furthermore, May’s mentioning of the Salisbury Novichok attack conducted by Russia drew strong support from within the conference and across party lines. She took it upon herself to attack Corbyn’s foreign policy views which many in the Labour Party also strongly object to. Highlighting the fact that Corbyn doubted the findings of the UK’s security services, as well as the fact that he believes military action should gain approval from the Security Council first, this is enough for some to be convinced that Corbyn is not the man for the top job and that he may never put the UK’s defence first.
The speech was rather a typical speech to be heard in a party conference, but one which had some atypical features. A much better, polished performance from Theresa May after the calamitous speech last year, the speech painted a rosy and futuristic picture and served as a beacon of hope to both current and potential Conservative voters. It promised key reform in areas which have been hardest hit by the changes in the economy. It promised an end to austerity and the beginning of improved public services. However, it is doubtful that this is enough to woo voters and help her earn the mandate she desperately requires, especially as we head into the final Brexit negotiation stages. Furthermore, the electorate remembers the harsh days of austerity, the effects of which are still being felt today strongly. Whether her hint at austerity ending has any truth to it, many are not as hopeful as they want to be. The speech attempts to deliver, but whether it will actually do so is a question that can only be answered properly in the near future.
Cover Photo: https://flic.kr/p/YTFsWE Arno Mikkor (EU2017EE)