Mark Stuart: May’s balancing act is challenge of her life

Theresa May enters 10 Downing Street, London, after becoming Prime Minister. Following a humiliating election result, she must now restore party morale to retain power.
Theresa May enters 10 Downing Street, London, after becoming Prime Minister. Following a humiliating election result, she must now restore party morale to retain power.
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What a difference a year makes. At last year’s Conservative Party Conference, many delegates heaved a quiet sigh of relief.

There was a general feeling that David Cameron, their ultra modernising leader, had ruffled too many feathers and that, following his resignation, the members had got their party back by electing a new leader more in tune with their own traditional beliefs.

A year on, bitter memories of Theresa May’s failure to win an overall majority at the 2017 General Election will still be at the forefront of party members’ minds. As such, Britain’s second female Prime Minister faces a challenge which Margaret Thatcher never had to face – restoring party morale after failing to win a general election.

So, as the Conservative Party faithful gathers at Manchester this week, which potential pitfalls do Theresa May and her Government face?

First of all, it would be a mistake to ignore the choice of conference venue. The Conservatives need to be mindful of the fact that the North is still reeling from recent broken promises on major rail infrastructure projects, which put in doubt the Government’s commitment to a Northern Powerhouse.

In particular, the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling will have a lot of explaining to do if trust is to be restored with local businesses and council leaders across the region.

Secondly, it would be a misjudgement for Theresa May to assume that Conservative Party conferences are always anodyne affairs, crammed with unthinking delegates who can automatically be guaranteed to wave Union flags, sing Land of Hope and Glory and then afford their leader a ten minute standing ovation.

Just occasionally, Conservative members vent their spleen on sensitive issues as they did in the late 1980s over their opposition to oil sanctions against Ian Smith’s white supremacist regime in Southern Rhodesia.

In more recent times, it has been the issue of Europe which has soured the atmosphere at party conference, most notably in 1992 when Norman Tebbit launched a scathing attack on John Major. Replying to a poisonous debate, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary urged delegates to give such disunity a miss.

Twenty-five years on, it is once again the issue of Europe which will require careful handling on the conference floor, especially in light of Theresa May’s carefully crafted Florence Speech. Clearly, not all delegates will agree either with its conciliatory tone or much of its content. But Conservatives should not fall into Labour’s mistake last week of stifling a full debate on Europe.

In one sense, it is a good idea to allow party members to let off steam on an issue about which they feel so passionately. In the 1980s, Conservative Party conferences were characterised by retired colonels and elderly aunts calling for a restoration of capital punishment.

It was just something which the leadership on the platform had to endure, even though there was no prospect of MPs voting to bring back hanging.

However, journalists attending the Conservative Conference will be poised, ready to pounce on any evidence of party disunity over Europe, which they will gleefully report to their readers.

A third warning to Theresa May is to beware the fringe. No, I am not referring here to Boris Johnson’s uncontrollable hair, but rather to the myriad events which take place outside the main Conference hall.

The Prime Minister will be dreading fringe events hosted by right-wing think-tanks, attended by Euro-sceptic Conservative MPs eager to air their hard-line approach to Brexit.

Back in the conference hall, the fourth potential pitfall to be avoided is the danger of Cabinet ministers going off-message.

In spite of the fact that ministers formally approved Theresa May’s Florence Speech last week, it will be almost impossible to prevent leading figures in the party hierarchy from treating their platform speeches as a chance to display their leadership credentials to the party faithful.

One recalls the dazzling speeches of Michael Heseltine in the 1980s, who became the darling of Conservative Party conferences. Both ‘Hezza’ and Boris once upon a time sported locks of striking blond hair. Although their views on Europe differ markedly, both politicians have the ability to use their stunning powers of oratory with which to set the conference hall alight.

But such adulation of Boris by the party members is frowned upon by Downing Street because it is bound to spark fresh media speculation about a possible leadership challenge.

A fifth pitfall for the Prime Minister to avoid is allowing too many speechwriters to ruin her keynote conference speech. Margaret Thatcher’s most noteworthy party conference address was crafted by just one man, Ronald Millar, who came up with the line ‘the lady’s not for turning’ in October 1980.

Theresa May needs a similarly memorable line. My choice would be ‘Let us finish the job’ in terms of completing the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. But any desire to fire up Conservative delegates with jingoistic rhetoric needs to be tempered by the Prime Minister’s need to strike a conciliatory tone to the European Union negotiators, with whom she must strike a deal.

The fundamental problem, however, is that the gap between what the Conservative Party membership and MPs are demanding and what the European Union is prepared to concede is as wide as the English Channel. That is why, in eighteen months’ time, poor Theresa May could yet find herself staring over a cliff edge at Dover unable to make a deal.

Mark Stuart, from York, is a 
political academic who has written 
the biographies of John Smith and Douglas Hurd.