3 October 2018

Theresa May’s best conference speech yet – but is it enough?


The great advantage of a disastrous conference speech is that it lowers the threshold above which speeches made in subsequent years can be considered a success. By that standard, Theresa May’s speech today was something close to a triumph. Everything is, after all, relative.

Of course, some of it was a matter of too little, too late.

The country tired of austerity long ago and announcing — or rather re-announcing — its end butters few parsnips now. Equally, the passages on Brexit, while heartfelt and, if taken at face value, not entirely unreasonable, smacked of a certain desperation. This is not an ideal situation, the Prime Minister implied, but it is where we are and we have little option but to make the best of it.

Sometimes a sow’s ear will have to do. And besides, she suggested, it is not as though anyone else, least of all any of her internal critics, has come up with anything better. My way may not work but if you squint hard enough and screw your courage to the sticking place you can just about will yourself into a position at which it begins to seem like something close to the best available option. Just about, anyway.

But this, as we all know, is simply a matter of buying time. The theme of this conference was not “Opportunity”, as the banners and staging suggested, but, rather, “let’s just get through this”. The fundamentals of the position remain unaltered: a weak Prime Minister leading a weak government at a time when a nervous, fractious, country could certainly do with with something better than that.

The absence of anything resembling a coherent, let alone visionary, domestic agenda was a reminder of the manner in which Brexit — and internal feuding — uses up 80 per cent of the government’s bandwidth.

Still, Theresa May is at her best when she offers perspiration. She is not an inspiring speaker and soaring rhetoric would, in any case, sound hollow and phoney if it came from her. This would be true at any time but is especially true in the present circumstances.

It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it. That, in essence, was the pitch she made to the Conservative party two years ago and it remains the best she can offer to the country now. If this comes close to being not much more than a pity plea then so be it. The alternatives, after all, are even worse. In this respect, the spectre of Prime Minister Johnson is useful to May; a ghoul to be used for frightening the Tory children.

So too, of course, is Jeremy Corbyn. The most persuasive passages of today’s speech were those in which she attacked the Labour leader. Persuasive because they had the singular advantage of being rooted in reality. They were, that is, based on things that are true. It is striking how starting from facts can boost a speech.

May’s warnings about the Leader of the Opposition implicitly rebuked much of the Conservative Party too. Sure, she said, we may argue and we may sometimes disagree with each other but we should always do so within certain clearly understood parameters. There should be a decency to our politics, regardless of our policy preferences. This, she said, “is a truth the British people instinctively understand”. They understand this “because they are not ideologues”. Take that, you vein-popping, swivel-eyed, Brexit obsessives.

A Labour Party in which Derek Hatton is back in the fold — how long until George Galloway is similarly re-embraced, by the way? — is a Labour Party embracing extremism and turning its back on the traditions of social democracy. It is not that Corbyn’s policies are all necessarily wrong — though many of them are — but that his instincts invariably are. And since politics begins with instincts – and hence with character too – dreadful instincts are a certain precursor to worse policy sooner rather than later.

In that respect invoking previous Labour leaders from Attlee to Kinnock was entirely reasonable and even fitting. The current state of the Labour party is indeed tragic. “What has it come to when Jewish families today seriously discuss where they should go if Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister?” is both a good question and a shameful one that has no good, or honest, answer. It ought to be an unconscionable state of affairs; it ought to pierce every Labour MP. They enabled this; they are letting this happen.

In similar fashion, Corbyn deserves to be skewered again and again for his reaction to the Skripal poisoning. Send the evidence to Russia, he demanded, and ask them what they think of it. This was not just deplorable; it was idiotic too. But it was also another revealing moment in which Corbyn’s instincts were all too apparent.

As so often — like when he demanded Article 50 be triggered the day after the Brexit referendum — his initial reaction to events is more significant than the later, endlessly reworked and refined and finessed and muddied position of deliberate ambiguity the Labour party eventually embraces.

You need neither like nor esteem Theresa May to appreciate she is better than that. A low bar, certainly, but still one worth clearing. And it is true that many voters thirst for “a party that is decent, moderate, and patriotic” but here again, unavoidably, the thought arose that “decent” and “moderate” are not the words that instinctively come to mind when you’re asked to consider this iteration of the Conservative party.

Equally, “security, freedom, and opportunity” risks ringing just a little bit hollow given the uncertainty and risk guaranteed by Britain’s great Brexit adventure. The case against Corbyn was rather more persuasive than the case for May.

And not everything can be dodged forever. Brexit, alas, will not go away and, being an essentially unsolvable set of problems, will continue to cripple this government. Limping from one week to the next is about the best that can be hoped for in the present circumstances. That is less than ideal but also about all that can be expected. In that sense, if few others, Theresa May is a prime minister who fits the times.

This was her best, most successful, conference speech as leader but that, in the end, is not quite saying enough.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.