James Reed: Why Theresa May has most to lose during party conferences

It is ironic, argues James Reed, that Theresa May is the leader facing the most awkward party conference.
It is ironic, argues James Reed, that Theresa May is the leader facing the most awkward party conference.
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EVEN though Labour is in the middle of an acrimonious leadership battle which is likely to solve little, the UK Independence Party is suffering an identity crisis and Liberal Democrats are still licking their 2015 election wounds, it is still the Conservatives who face the biggest challenge this party conference season.

With, on paper at least, a General Election still years away and an Opposition in utter disarray, the Conservatives should be using their gathering in Birmingham – the culmination of the 2016 conference season – to prepare for a long period of political dominance.

But the shadow of Europe will hang over the International Conference Centre.

When David Cameron announced plans for the EU referendum in 2013, he said it was “time for the British people to have their say. It is time to settle this European question in British politics”.

“And the Conservative Party,” he could have added.

Just four months after Britain voted to leave the EU, it is already clear the referendum has achieved nothing of the sort either in the country or his party.

The row over whether Britain should be in or out of the EU has been replaced by a row over where the country’s future now lies. In the single market or not? What kind of immigration controls? And what about all those promises made by Leave campaigners? The list goes on and on.

Even the so-called “Three Brexiteers” charged with leading Britain into its new future – David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox – appear unable to agree on the destination they wish to reach. After all, Mr Davis, the Brexit Secretary, said this week that he was not the politician who promised an extra £350m a week for the NHS during the referendum.

From “Brexit means Brexit” to her insistence the Government will not offer a “running commentary” on Britain’s discussions with Brussels, Theresa May has done all she can to buy time, but she cannot continue to stall for much longer.

The Prime Minister might be enjoying the frustration of her political opponents at her refusal to engage in the debate, but there will come a point when her obfuscation impacts in the real world and the real economy.

The clamour for more certainty will only grow from the business community in the coming weeks as major investment decisions are put on hold and international investors decide whether other countries offer more predictable climates.

With a speech on Brexit scheduled for the Conservative conference in addition to the regular leader’s slot, now is the moment for Mrs May to set out some clear principles.

Indeed, clarity should be Mrs May’s watchword in Birmingham. From Hinkley Point to HS2 and metro-mayors, those around the Prime Minister have enjoyed a summer hinting at significant changes of direction on policies championed by her predecessor.

But there is a fine line between demonstrating independence of thought and looking indecisive.

The course of the Conservative Party leadership contest denied its members a say. The faithful gathering in Birmingham will want to be reassured their MPs chose wisely.

In Liverpool, Labour MPs will be wishing they too had the final say over the choice of leader.

In the absence of a major upset, Jeremy Corbyn will be returned as leader at the start of the party’s conference in a move which threatens to plunge Labour into the kind of chaos that makes the last 12 months look like stability.

While the regular business of conference continues in the hall, the party’s future will be determined in the corridors, bars and meeting rooms as MPs decide if and how they can work with a leader in whom they have no confidence.

Indeed, given the likely outcome of the leadership election, it is not at all clear how many Labour MPs will travel to the conference – the most significant discussions could be held miles away from Merseyside.

Mr Corbyn is likely to stress the need for reconciliation but many of his supporters will seek recriminations and hope proposed constituency boundary changes and mandatory reselection will give them the opportunity to do so.

The Lib Dems go into conference season as the beacon of stability. While losing seats in the General Election was devastating, being on the losing side in the referendum has served the party well.

As an unashamedly pro-European party, they have scooped up new members from disillusioned Remain voters 
and been further buoyed by victories including a triumph in the recent Mosborough ward 
by-election in Sheffield where they enjoyed a 19 per cent swing from Labour.

A return to the heady days of more than 50 Commons seats and control of city councils across the North remains a long way away, but Tim Farron will find himself addressing a party in far better spirits than he could have hoped as he surveyed the electoral wreckage in the early hours of May 8 last year.

And when the Lib Dem gathering is over in Brighton, Mr Farron can sit back and watch Labour battle over its own future, and the Conservatives battle over the country’s destiny.

James Reed is The Yorkshire Post’s political editor.