Conservative conference: Brexit, Boris and the Maybot
Neurosis over Brexit, a leadership battle with Boris Johnson and how to combat Jeremy Corbyn - FT political commentator Robert Shrimsley goes out on the ground in Birmingham to look at the key issues facing Theresa May and the Tory party faithful.
Produced, filmed and edited by Joe Sinclair; additional footage by Reuters
Free sticker, sir?
Conservative party conference here in Birmingham - three big themes, I think. The first is Europe. That was easy, because it's been the big theme of every Conservative conference for the last 30 years. The party's neurosis over Europe is reaching absolute peak, as people wonder what's going to happen with Theresa May's efforts to get a Brexit deal.
Number two is the jockeying for position on the assumption that there will be a leadership election sometime in the next year, and everybody attempting to show that they are leadership material. And the third thing - they look to the economic agenda Labour laid out last week - workers on boards, share dilution of companies, rising taxes, nationalisation. And they know that some of this has a popular appeal.
So they've got to come up with their own alternative, their own popular form of capitalism, which they can take to the voters as a viable alternative to Jeremy Corbyn, because when they look at Labour now, they don't see it like the Blairite Labour party, which they'd rather wasn't in power, but wasn't going to destroy everything they believed in.
They look at Jeremy Corbyn's agenda, and that terrifies them. Paul Goodman, former Conservative MP, now head of ConservativeHome, what have you made of this one so far?
I think this is a conference, so they're kind of in a state of animated suspension, because the prime minister is pretending that Chequers is still alive. The conference, or most of it, naturally wants to support her. So it's also pretending that Chequers is still alive.
Well, whether it's animated suspension or suspended animation, the moment of suspense in the Conservative party conference is at hand. This is the queue for Boris Johnson's fringe meeting. And this queue has started forming around two hours before the great man is due to speak. This is the defining moment, I think, of this conference. This is his great big pitch for leadership.
He believes in Britain, and that's what we need in a leader today.
So you haven't got that at the moment?
With her current plan, no. But I'm hoping that she will take wise counsel, and she will change course.
In many ways, I'm a fan, because I like him, and he's got a personality. But this is serious business, and number one for me is we need to come out now. That's what we said we'd do. That's what the public said. So if Boris is up for that, that's fine. But we've got to be really united as a party.
Thank you, everybody. Sit down. Come on. Thank you very much. This is the moment to chuck Chequers.
If we get it wrong, if we bottle Brexit now, believe me, the people of this country will find it hard to forgive. If we get it wrong now and we proceed with this undemocratic solution, if you remain half in half out, we will protract this toxic, tedious business that is frankly so off-putting to sensible, middle of the road people, who want us to stop talking about Europe and get on with their domestic priorities, as we should be.
Boris Johnson just finished speaking to an absolutely packed hall. And you can see down there all of the Eurosceptic MPs all lining up to tell the journalists what a brilliant speech it was. It was quite interesting, because it wasn't his traditional tub-thumping number. He was clearly trying for a more understated, statesman-like approach. He talked a great deal not about Europe - although he did talk about Brexit, obviously.
He talked a lot about housing and the Conservative vision. And clearly, the point he wanted to get across is I'm not a one-trick pony. I can talk about everything Conservatives need to be thinking about. And when you're thinking about what a leader looks like, I think it looks like this. That was his message. And I think quite a lot of people will have heard it.
The headlines from Boris Johnson's speech are all going to be about leadership challenges and his comments on Brexit and his opposition to the Chequers proposals. But a very meaty chunk of his speech was also a fairly full-throated defence of Thatcherite economic policies and Conservative belief in the free market as the way to challenge Jeremy Corbyn.
And that's been one of the other big issues at this conference - the debate going on between how to frame domestic policy between the free market ideals which you associate with Margaret Thatcher, and an attempt to develop policies which appeal to ordinary voters and answer some of the concerns that they have.
Rob Halfon, who's a former Tory deputy chairman, and also government minister, takes the view that too many in his party are obsessing on ideological purity of the free market, and that they need to get back to policies and practicalities which will help ordinary voters.
I came into politics as a Thatcherite as a young student. And my belief is the world has changed significantly. And I think that Corbyn spoke pretty well for the anxieties of the British people. And when they talk about childcare, when they talk about the cost of living, when they talk about housing, those are big issues facing constituents like mine in Harlow and up and down towns in England.
The conservativism what we need is a social justice conservatism, saying to people, look, we're going to bring you to that ladder of opportunity. We're going to help you climb up. We're going to be there with a social amulet if you fall. But at the top is job security and prosperity. And on the way is more choice, lower taxes for lower earners, more skills, and affordable housing.
The queues have begun for the other main event of this party conference, the prime minister's speech, which wraps up the whole event. Last year's was a bit of a disaster - coughing fits, all kinds of accidents, from which the prime minister still emerged essentially unscathed. I think she'll be hoping set the bar a bit higher this year.
We stand at a pivotal moment in our history. It falls to our party to lead our country through it. When we come together, there is no limit to what we can achieve. Ours is a great country. Our future is in our hands. Together, let's seize it. Together, let's build a better Britain.
Excuse me. This is Financial Times, just getting some reactions.
Can you tell me what you thought of the speech?
Because she's just given us all a direction, a hope. And we knew she would deliver. And she will deliver. And we've just got to be 100 per cent behind her, all the way.
And there's an awful lot of people around here still talking about the next leader and leadership elections next year. What do you reckon?
Theresa May is a very good prime minister. You know, again, I don't think she's anyone's ideal choice, but she's done a very good job. She's dogged. She's determined. And she's a bloody difficult woman.
What did you think of the speech?
I thought it was a full blooded attack on the Corbyn faction of the Labour party which hit home. It was a well-delivered speech.
It was a pretty good speech - ticked a lot of boxes, delivered very confidently, some good jokes, and some strong passages, strong attack on Jeremy Corbyn's vision for the country, and a very strong pitch to her party to say, OK, you've had your fun arguing about Brexit now we've got to get on with it and be grown up about this for the country - also a big announcement on housing.
And you can tell that the party really wants to like Theresa May. It really does. But I don't know that any of the doubts that it has have fundamentally been assuaged. There's still a lot of people who enjoyed Boris Johnson's speech more.
The line that Paul Goodman from ConservativeHome came up with about this conference being in suspended animation is exactly right. You have this sense of the Conservatives rather frozen in the moment. They're a relatively new government. They don't have any strong new agenda that they want to pursue.
You have the sense of them marking time while they get Brexit out of the way. And I think the waters are going to close over this conference very, very quickly. It's going to be forgotten very, very quickly. And I don't think anything has fundamentally changed for the Conservatives.