Theresa May was received with muted rapture in the hall in Birmingham today, by a party that cannot quite believe that, since its last annual conference, the country has voted to leave the EU and they have a new leader and Prime Minister.
The lack of triumphalism felt strange, but it reflects something that Patrick McLoughlin, the Conservative chair, referred to in his opening speech. He referred obliquely to families divided by the referendum debate. Two thirds of Tory members voted to leave the EU, but that means that one third supported Remain.
And one of those was the new Prime Minister herself. It was strange to hear her say that the UK is “going to be a fully independent and sovereign country once again”, when only a few weeks ago she was arguing that it should not be.
No wonder therefore that the enthusiasm of the Eurosceptics was so contained.
For a Prime Minister whose position makes no sense, however, May did brilliantly in a short, businesslike speech. She read it from a text, not from the autocue, and when it was over, she briefly acknowledged the applause before striding off the stage as if she had work to get on with.
She started by, in effect, admitting that she didn’t want to talk about Brexit at all. She had taken the job, she said, to stand up for “ordinary working-class people”, for “people who can just about manage”. It is a strong pitch, and a clever use of David Cameron and George Osborne as the upper-class foil, that ought to worry the Labour Party except that it has enough of its own self-made anxieties.
The people she claims to represent, who worry about paying the mortgage and getting their children into good schools, may have voted to leave the EU, but they don’t want the Tory party to be banging on about Europe, they want it just to get on with it.
However, the party conference could hardly not talk about it, so we had today’s clear-the-air session, which consisted of May repeating the lines she had given in her two Sunday newspaper interviews and on The Andrew Marr Show this morning.
The main points: she will trigger Article 50, the two-year process for leaving the EU “no later than the end of March”; and there will be a “Great Repeal Bill” next year, which will do the opposite of its name. Although it will repeal the European Communities Act 1972, by which UK law was made temporarily (for 46 years) subservient to EU law, it will also say that all EU law continues to apply in the UK until Parliament decides that it doesn’t.
That was a tricky bit of her speech, so she lapsed into Euro-jargon, talking about “converting the acquis into British law”. But for trained specialists in Euro-jargon, she said something else significant, namely that “we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”. Given that the ECJ is the court that enforces the rules of the EU single market, this was confirmation that she intends to take us out of the single market.
She said people ought to stop fussing about the difference between soft Brexit and hard Brexit. Hard Brexit it is, then. But she used the traditional rhetorical device of the third way to present herself as the reasonable choice between two extremes.
On one side, there were those who didn’t want to accept the referendum verdict, who argue that Parliament has to vote on Article 50 (they are “trying to subvert democracy”, she said). On the other side, there were those who didn’t want to follow the Article 50 procedure at all, but simply walk out of the EU and sort out the mess afterwards (“no sudden and unilateral withdrawal”, she said).
She didn’t have much to say. But she said it well and convincingly. She couldn’t say more, she said, because she didn’t want to show her negotiating hand. But she didn’t have to. Every time she said we were leaving the EU they applauded happily.
And she did at least perform one valuable service to political rhetoric by killing off that awful phrase “punching above our weight”, a phrase redolent of declinism and insecurity that always sounds like an admission of weakness. “We don’t need to punch above our weight because our weight is substantial enough already.”
We will see about that, but this was a bold expression of serious intent.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies