Jayne Dowle: Theresa May spoke only to her party, not to the rest of us

Prime Minister Theresa May dances as she arrives on stage to make her speech at the Conservative Party annual conference at the International Convention Centre, Birmingham.
Prime Minister Theresa May dances as she arrives on stage to make her speech at the Conservative Party annual conference at the International Convention Centre, Birmingham.
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DANCE moves aside, it sounded like such a rosy view of the future. What a pity that many of us felt it was a future which must belong to someone else.

If you happen to live in the North, or anywhere else where comfortable prosperity can’t be taken for granted, the Prime Minister’s keynote speech on the final day in Birmingham seemed largely irrelevant.

Theresa May puts the finishing touches to her party conference speech.

Theresa May puts the finishing touches to her party conference speech.

The only thing it did successfully was to sum up a conference where many of the burning issues which concern us were either ignored or gabbled over with blithe assurances.

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The big question of course, was what will Britain look like after Brexit? Business people, the very core of traditional Tory support, were left no wiser regarding investment, tariffs, customs or regulations. Farmers were stood wondering whether their ever-more vital role in food production had somehow been overlooked.

As for social policies, transport, welfare, local authority funding, education and the NHS, nothing much more than lip service or a knee-jerk initiative. For instance, housing specialists and voters alike were left bemused by the announcement of an increase in stamp duty for overseas buyers as a nod towards tackling the severe shortage of affordable homes to buy and rent.

Boris Johnson, speaking at a fringe event at the Tory conference.

Boris Johnson, speaking at a fringe event at the Tory conference.

A policy clearly aimed mostly at a select portion of the prime London market, it certainly won’t encourage developers to set about building the millions of new homes we urgently need.

Mrs May’s closing speech painted a fine picture of a future full of hope as she promised that “our best days lie ahead of us”. If she wants to secure our unwavering support, maybe she needs to find a new speechwriter.

Her words spoke primarily to Tory MPs plotting to topple her, and not the millions of ordinary people relying on her leadership to steer us through Brexit.

And, of course, we’re the same people being asked to put our faith in her Cabinet to deliver thoughtful and beneficial policies on everything else that makes a country work effectively, including social inclusion and tackling the North/South divide.

Still, I don’t suppose we should have expected anything else. Those of us who expected a wedge of exciting pledges about the future were at best naïve, at worst misguided.

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Instead, this was an opportunity for the Conservatives to talk to other Conservatives and, in some cases, openly display their visceral hatred for each other. I know people queued for hours to see him, but it was anything but edifying to watch Boris Johnson playing to the crowd. We’ve heard it all before.

Yes, but what about Sajid Javid, you might say. He could well be the missing link to blue-collar conservatives which David Cameron destroyed. However, I do think there is something slightly desperate about holding up the Home Secretary, the Rochdale-born son of a bus driver, as proof that the Tory party has ordinary people’s interests at heart.

He and Johnson are both touted as potential leaders, but this was not the time to spar them against each other, no doubt cheered on by delegates slightly worse for wear on warm fizz. Conservatives talk a lot about unity, but there was precious little here. Only endless hot air, insults and a lingering sense of missed opportunity.

To which the leadership could offer only two choices; look back, or look forward. Surely this was an ideal time to look the nation straight in the eye following Jeremy Corbyn’s uproarious Labour conference the week before? If ever a credible alternative to the prospect of living under the iron fist was needed, it was this week.

I think Mrs May used the words “decent” and “patriotic” to appeal to appalled Labour voters who might be persuaded to switch allegiance. However, it’s not enough to tick them off without putting them into practice. Where was the sense of excitement, the feeling of being swept up in a new vision for Britain? Writing recently in The House magazine, George Freeman MP, the former chair of the PM’s policy board, said that a new generation of aspirational professional voters under 45 are rejecting the old model and “unless the Conservative party reconnects with them, we risk becoming a rump party of nostalgic nationalists”.

This doesn’t need to become a foregone conclusion. After all, what ever happened to one nation Conservatism, that all-encompassing vision which holds inclusion at its heart? Have party figures really lost so much faith in themselves that they lack the confidence to put forward big ideas which risk capturing the imagination of the public?

It is frankly, irresponsible to allow Jeremy Corbyn to direct so much of the current political narrative without preparing a powerful rejoinder. But it would be even more irresponsible to let a political party, which has so much to offer to so many people, devour itself if it does not heed Mrs May’s unity appeal.