Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
There is one immovable annual engagement in any Party Leader’s diary: his or her speech at their Party’s conference. This year, Theresa May’s speech needs to be memorable for all the right reasons. And CCHQ needs to make sure that any letters near the podium are superglued onto the set.
The briefing about her coming address has started. We are told that it will set out how the Prime Minister intends to win the 2022 election for the Conservatives. If correct, this is the wrong approach because, as surveys of Party members and supporters have made clear, May will not be leading the Conservatives into the 2022 election. Such an approach would therefore be a waste of one of her last chances to set out her stall as Prime Minister and the legacy she wants to leave the Party.
Equally, it would be a waste of time for the speech to take on Boris Johnson or any other potential successor leaders. He is even more of a busted flush after yesterday’s Mail on Sunday article than he was when he failed to stand up for his constituents by voting against the expansion of Heathrow. And we have no idea who other future leadership contenders might be. The field remains wide open.
My overriding impression from conversations over the recess with constituents and others is that the British public is overwhelmingly weary with Brexit. The most often used phrase was: ‘just get on with it – and then get on with everything else we need our Government to do’. So the May’s speech in Birmingham doesn’t need to be long or complicated. But it does need to come from the heart – and to speak over the heads of Party members and the media to the people that she most identifies with: middle of the road voters.
She needs to explain clearly and carefully where the Brexit negotiations are, why she’s made the choices she has – and where she expects them to go. The British people need to be treated as grown-ups as Brexit unfolds, and she needs to level with them as much as she can to keep them on side. If possible, she needs to write this herself. And we need to see the Prime Minister who danced and smiled in South Africa delivering it – not the PMQs version.
I would also recommend a focus on one specific domestic policy, which I believe should be social care. Her new advisers have had long enough since the 2017 election to design proposals which get us all thinking about how we save for and pay for our old age. To admit to policy mistakes and re-set the narrative on this would do the Prime Minister and the Party a lot of good. In a similar vein, it would be helpful if she could make it clear that she does not want to see the Brexit divisions in either the Conservative Party or the country to be perpetuated. So the tone of anything she says is as important as what she says.
Finally if she wants to do one thing to surprise us all it would be to make a generous offer to all EU citizens living in the UK that, whatever happens next March, they will never be treated as illegal immigrants, and we will have no repeat of the appalling Windrush situation.
The Prime Minister is in a very difficult situation. But most decent people understand that and wish her well. Her speech can repay their trust and make sure her difficult situation doesn’t become impossible.