Theresa May made her first speech as Prime Minister to a Conservative Party conference two years ago. The best-known line from it is: “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” It summed up where she was at that moment in time: the former Remainer who was ruling out a softer Brexit; the leader who was getting on with moving Article 50; the Conservative who believed in “the good that government can do”; the Tory politician who could break new ground in winning support from Nick Timothy’s potential voters – Erdington man and woman in the provincial swing seats of the midlands and the north. To borrow from the jargon, her pitch was to the Somewheres, not the Anywheres.
Much has happened since then. A bungled general election campaign robbed her of her majority, lent Jeremy Corbyn a breakthrough moment, lost Timothy and left Downing Street without strategic direction. The knock-on effects have pulverised her negotiation leverage. Last July, two of her most senior Cabinet ministers quit over a Brexit plan that much of her party opposes and whose central tenet the EU has rejected. The talks may fail entirely, bringing No Deal, a fudge or even No Brexit into play. You might not need the fingers of one hand to count the Conservative MPs who believe she can lead the party into the next election. Many believe she will be gone by the time the next Prime Ministerial conference speech is delivered next year. One of them, James Duddridge, announced shortly before her speech today that he has sent a letter of no confidence in her to Graham Brady.
Her response today, in the very same city, was to clamber above her troubles, perch in Downing Street’s bully pulpit, and preach a different message from two years ago. This was a One Nation speech without the phrase One Nation in it. (She prefers “the national interest”, a reminder of her negotiating mission.) She promised the “moderate, patriotic government this country needs. To be a party not for the few, not even for the many, but for everyone who works hard and plays by the rules.” There was no more talk of citizens of nowhere. Instead, she sought to appeal to the Somewheres and the Anywheres, to Leave and Remain voters alike. “The good that government can do” was tempered by the admission that “government will never have all the answers”. There was even an f-word – though not the one to which alluded, as she had her hit at Boris Johnson. It was freedom. A Tory conference hasn’t heard it stressed for a very long time.
Anyone can craft a nice pitch to Citizens from Everywhere. (Expect, by the way, to hear much more about Keelan Carr, the SpAd who took the lead in putting the speech together.) But the real upside for May, and still more for success-hungry, direction-seeking Party activists, was that it offered, at last, strategic shape. The Prime Minister sought to put Hugh Gaitskell, John McCain, Neil Kinnock, Labour’s campaigners against anti-semitism, and, yes, Jo Cox together with herself in one corner…and lump Jeremy Corbyn, Russian poisoners, Twittermobs, and the bullies who shouted at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s children in another. And by alluding to the stories of some of her ministers – James Brokenshire’s cancer, Esther McVey’s time in care, Sajid Javid’s migrant background – she sought to humanise her party and to legitimise its work: to push Labour off the moral high ground it tries to usurp. This was Big Tent politics. Meet Theresa Baldwin.
But a potentially winning strategy is useless if you have already lost the battlefield. And the truth is that the Prime Minister is close to the edge on Brexit. Unless she can clinch a deal and get it through Parliament, or squeeze No Deal disruption down to a minimum, the glimpses of light in her speech today will be smothered out. As we expected, there was little new about her plans today. She said she’s ready for No Deal; tilted at a second referendum; wrapped the Chequers scheme, as she has never called it, in the Union Flag, and made more explicit the threat that has always been implicit: vote a deal down, and you risk no Brexit at all. None of this left her audience better informed about what she plans to do next. Hints of what this might be, briefed during the past few days, suggest that any gain from her speech may be halted by the weekend, let alone the winter. Pressing on with her present plan risks 48 letters and a Cabinet revolt, or both.
So, then. The Prime Minister gave us a speech with a strategy. And also one with risk: by saying “we get it” over economic policy, she may have opened a Pandora’s Box on spending bids. With a weak Chancellor in place at the Treasury, what price an orderly spending review in the spring, assuming that this Government gets there? For what it’s worth, May was short on announcements, of which lifting the cap on local authority housing borrowing stood out, together with the capitulation to Robert Halfon on fuel duty. At any rate, we enjoyed her defence of markets. We liked the Tory stress on opportunity. We will even tolerate the dancing. Take a bow, Carr and company. But we’re haunted by the suspicion that it has all come too late in the day; and by the sense that a new leader is still required for the next election.