There are fake crises as well as fake news. Politicians and journalists in the Westminster Village regularly lash each other up into a lather about nothing much at all. They may be doing it once again over the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday. Politicians catch colds. Pranksters disrupt speeches (though how on earth did conference security let yesterday’s slip through the net?). Stage sets fall apart. These things happen, although it is admittedly unusual for all three to do so at once.
Most voters may shrug. Very many will not have noticed yesterday’s events at all, or will only have glimpsed what happened briefly. It may even be that Theresa May’s resilience, good humour under fire, and determination to do her duty win the sympathy and backing from the country that she gained yesterday from her party.
But is such a benign outcome for the Conservatives really likely? “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action,” Goldfinger says in the novel. And after yesterday, the Prime Minister may need even more than James Bond to rescue her from her troubles. The danger is that losing her voice becomes a metaphor for her having nothing to say; that the collapsing slogan becomes one for a government falling apart.
If that second claim is an overstatement, the first is simply untrue. The core problem with May’s text yesterday was not that there was nothing in it, but that there was too much. Its writers sought to pack into it an apology (which we advised her to get out of the way last Sunday), a personal credo, her family story, “the British Dream”, policy announcements, free market generalities and interventionist detail. ConservativeHome liked parts of it. The Prime Minister signalled that contingency planning is under way if there is no deal in the Brexit talks, which this site has been flagging up since the summer, and swore to take personal charge of the drive for more housing, just as we suggested last weekend.
But boiled down to its essence, the key problem with the speech was that for all its content it lacked clarity – and so failed to point a coherent way ahead either for the Conservatives or, especially, for May herself. You cannot adapt to the Corbyn challenge by making a stirring defence of free markets…and then carry on as usual by stressing energy price caps and more council houses. The latter was especially puzzling. The Conservative Manifesto spoke of turning social housing private: new fixed-term social homes, it said, would be built and then “sold privately after ten to fifteen years with an automatic Right to Buy for tenants”.
However, neither the speech nor the briefing mentioned that last element – and this at a time when younger voters have little stake in the system, and thus little incentive to vote for the party which represents it. What has happened to the Tory vision, set out as long ago as the 1950s, of making workers capitalists – of the mass ownership of property, shares and pensions? Furthermore, housing is one of the few policy areas in which the Government can afford to be bold, since it can borrow for capital projects at cheap rates and doesn’t require primary legislation to act. But it promised more money for selling off existing homes, in the form of help to buy, than for building new ones. Earlier this week, William Hague urged the Conservatives to be imaginative. But five thousand more homes a year is a sprinkle of water in the housing ocean at a time when we need over 250,000.
The British dream didn’t work for Ed Miliband. It didn’t work earlier for Michael Howard. And we doubt very much whether it will work for Theresa May. But if that’s what she wants to project, it must be done properly – right from the start of the conference week. Instead, last Sunday brought two policy announcements, one of which will be swallowed up with no thanks at all (the raising of the level at which tuition fees begin to be repaid). That collapsing conference slogan was the Nick Timothy-era one – “Building a country that works for everyone”. It had the presence throughout the week of a ghost ship.
If Downing Street wanted “the British Dream” to be more than a last-day conference offering for the headline writers, it needed to be projected from the backdrop – and hammered home throughout the week, running through the speeches of Ministers from the platform as the core runs through a stick of rock. The newish team in Number Ten is evidently easier to deal with than the old one, and managerially very competent indeed, but it lacks a disruptor, an agitator, a source of ideas: a Steve Hilton or a Timothy or even a George Osborne, who gave the Cameron Government the Northern Powerhouse and the new Living Wage and, yes, Help to Buy.
There is the inevitable talk this morning of a leadership challenge. Conservative MPs will be talking with their Associations this coming weekend (in some cases), and meet in the Commons when it returns next week. The best guess today is that it will have moved a few to favour one, but not many. The case against is formidable: in essence, that toppling a Prime Minister during the Brexit negotiations would paralyse them.
Furthermore, the Tories can surely lose only one leader during this Parliament. What if another is required after those negotiations end? Or if a challenge led to a general election? And May’s replacement now could well be Boris Johnson, if his name went before the membership. That is a disincentive to act for many Conservative MPs.
None the less, the week will have reminded them of an inconvenient truth – namely, that the Foreign Secretary stands out from his Cabinet colleagues in being able to make a mass Tory appeal with pizzazz, wit and gusto. The Conservative week has been an Aesop-type fable of the lion and the frog: Johnson with his leonine Churchillian appeal; May with the croaker that seized up her throat. We have our reservations about the Foreign Secretary, but concede that he alone, of those Ministers who spoke this week, made the Tory message sing.