In the wake of a Labour Conference which saw Party division over both its leadership and its Brexit policy steal the headlines, it’s now the turn of the Conservative Party to have its say.
The plan for this Conference was to give the Conservative Party a platform to set the tone for the looming General Election, and to hammer home its messaging ahead of the official campaign kick-off. And yet, this will now prove extremely difficult.
The Supreme Court judgement has cast a huge cloud over proceedings, and just as thousands of delegates head up to Manchester, there is no clarity as to whether the event will still feature the usual roll-call of Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers and MPs, given that Parliament voted against a Conservative Conference recess. The Labour Party will no doubt seek to disrupt proceedings as much as possible, and drag MPs back from Manchester to Parliament in order to pull the focus back to the Brexit standstill.
However, assuming Boris Johnson gets the chance to address Conference as part of a revised make-do-and-mend schedule, we can expect the same key policy slogans from his leadership campaign to overrule proceedings; delivering Brexit, more police on the beat, more money for the NHS, a better education system, and stopping Corbyn. In other words, this Conference will be a key messaging test for Conservative strategists, who will be identifying the battlegrounds on which the Party will fight the forthcoming election.
Whilst Theresa May’s job last year was to win over the members in the room (who can forget her infamous ‘Dancing Queen’ routine?), this year is an entirely different operation. The Prime Minister already has the overwhelming support of his Party’s membership, so much so that his keynote Conference speech could verge on presenting more as a campaign rally. However, Boris Johnson will need to go one step further, and throw all his oratory skills at winning over millions of people across the country.
Despite a no-doubt slick and tightly-controlled front being put up for the media, behind this we can expect a Brexit bloodbath. There will likely be huge protests outside the Conference venue trying to silence proceedings, not to mention a fractious fringe calendar which will undermine the image of unity which the Party will be keen to present. Downing Street, which has run a fairly tight ship up until now, may well start to lose its grip on its steadfast line that the Government is still hoping to secure a deal with the EU before 31st October, and that all is well in the camp. Once the Conference bars fill up with delegates, tongues will surely begin to wag.
We can also expect this Conference to become a parading ground for prospective Conservative Party candidates, who will have their eyes on the prize ahead of the selection of parliamentary seats in the case of a snap General Election, not to mention the MPs who remain poised to pick up the mantle should Boris Johnson fall at the next hurdle. Given the important task of winning the air war and beating the ongoing Brexit noise, what is a must is that the membership is kept on board this Conference. The Party needs its foot soldiers more than ever, especially as this will be a key piece of ammunition in delivering a Conservative victory at the General Election – a prospect which is currently hanging in the balance. Preparations to sweeten the membership have clearly been well underway; this Conference promises more networking and training events for members than there have been in recent years.
Where this all leaves businesses is another matter. With the attention focused on Brexit and the seemingly inevitable General Election campaign on the horizon, gaining cut-through with our preoccupied politicians will prove challenging for corporates. However this year’s Conference will be attended by some of the Party’s most influential ‘idea generators’, and therefore provides a brilliant opportunity to sow the seeds for some election manifesto-worthy proposals.
All in all, Boris Johnson will be hoping to pull a political rabbit out of the hat this week and to translate any Conference momentum he generates into a bump in the polls. However, despite any short-term glow, the likelihood is that we’ll all be returning on Thursday morning to the new norm of parliamentary gridlock and political vitriol, and the countdown to the General Election will well and truly be on.
Victoria Murphy, Public Affairs
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January 21, 2021