Theresa May will head her first Conservative conference as Prime Minister and leader in Birmingham this week. Here’s what to expect:
Brexit means breakfast, lunch and dinner
May has marked the start of conference amid the fanfare that she is “starting Brexit”, as the Sunday newspapers excitedly put it. But the announcement – that there will be an Act of Parliament in the upcoming Queen’s Speech to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, effectively removing EU law from the Statute Book – is unlikely to calm the nerves of the impatient Hard Brexiters who want Article 50 triggered before the champagne has had a chance to chill in the bar of the Hyatt Regency. Brexit is the focus of Sunday’s main conference business, including a speech by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, but the place to watch the sparks fly will be on the fringe throughout the week. There are around 30 different fringe events on the subject of Brexit taking place at breakfast, lunch and through the evening, including leading Hard Brexiter Owen Paterson at 5.15pm on Monday, Crowne Plaza, at a discussion titled “Leave Means Leave”.
Snap (election) chat
Once again, the Prime Minister has ruled out holding a snap general election, telling the Sunday Times it would be inviting instability if she went to the country before 2020. Yet her MPs are wondering why she keeps ruling it out when Labour are so woefully behind in the polls, the Conservatives are tearing themselves apart over Brexit and she is trying to introduce a whole new policy agenda with a Commons majority of just 16. Of course, it is her prerogative to try to impose her authority on her new government, but having become Prime Minister without an election, the pressure is on her to secure her own mandate for the radical reforms she wants. Of course, this topic is not on the formal agenda, but it will keep cropping up.
Gove at the feast
David Cameron will not be attending conference, but the former prime minister’s presence will still be felt. Tory MPs close to Cameron continue to mutter darkly about May unpicking his legacy, reversing key strategic decisions and going slow on areas like youth justice and the Hinkley power station. Michael Gove, despite a spectacular falling out with Cameron over the EU referendum, remains loyal to the ex-prime minister’s agenda, particularly his own cherished free schools. There are rumours that Gove, who lost his job as Justice Secretary when May rode into No 10, will turn up to haunt May’s feast, if not at a fringe then surely one of the ritzier parties, like The Spectator’s, to luxuriate in some gossip over the specially mixed gin and tonic.
One of those areas where May has caused so much controversy is on education, and the pledge to allow any school to become a grammar, undermining the entire free schools agenda. Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, will set out her plans for schools on Tuesday afternoon. But there will be plenty of pushback from the old guard on the fringe in Birmingham. Nicky Morgan, ousted as Education Secretary in July, has been one of the most vocal critics of the grammar schools plan. She is speaking at a fringe event hosted by the Social Market Foundation on Monday, entitled “Inequality in Education”. Expect grammars to be the target.
If anyone was in doubt about the Prime Minister’s pitch to lead a government for the whole nation not just the “privileged few”, just look at the title of every theme on the main conference stage: “An Economy that Works for Everyone”; “A Society that Works for Everyone”; “A Country that Works for Everyone”. May’s keynote speech on Wednesday must do two things: put more landmarks on her roadmap to Brexit (following her announcement on The Andrew Marr Show that Article 50 will be triggered before the end of March 2017) and flesh out her manifesto for government. How can she provide opportunities for everyone in society against all the uncertainty and instability that leaving the EU will bring? She needs to move from soundbite to substance, because there are plenty of critics circling.Reuse content