When the Tories gather again in Manchester next year, Britain will have left the EU. Well that’s the plan anyway. This year’s conference is shaping up to be a critical moment for the Conservative party and the coming days should shed some light on whether the smoke is clearing, or getting thicker. Here’s what we are expecting:
Things didn’t go to script last week in Salzburg and that has undoubtedly complicated what was always going to be a difficult pitch by the Prime Minister to the party faithful on her Chequers plan in Birmingham next week.
It isn’t all bad for Number 10 though. The political unit will have cheered almost as loudly as those in Labour’s conference hall when Keir Starmer edged Labour closer to backing a second referendum. They see this as a trap that could see the Party haemorrhage voters in its northern heartlands.
It was notable that the PM broke from her activity in UNGA to provide a TV clip for the late evening news bulletins that followed. Expect her and others to lean heavily on it in the main hall as the Boris whirlwind sows dissent outside.
Meanwhile, few will have worked as hard over the past six weeks as James Marshall, head of the No10 Policy Unit, on the hook for delivering a meaningful suite of domestic announcements. The PM’s team will be mindful of unflattering comparison’s with Labour’s energetic gathering and won’t have forgotten the charges of domestic inertia that bubbled up at last year’s Conference and, again, after the January reshuffle.
For Marshall, the process will have cost him a few Whitehall war wounds, both to secure political agreement and also to drive things through the official Cabinet ‘write round’ clearance process in time. He will have had to contend with the Chancellor – never one to hold back from holding back policies across Whitehall that he disagrees with – as well as the competing visions for party policy being put forward both behind the scenes and across today’s papers.
Where the final policy platform nets out will continue to be debated internally into the weekend.
Many are predicting a long-overdue update on immigration – a full year since an early draft of the Immigration White Paper was leaked to the Guardian.
No10 high command will expect some kind of news generating return from the Department of Health on the NHS’s £20 billion 70th birthday present.
The environment remains a political priority, as does housing. Don’t be surprised if the detail of consultations due on the design of a deposit return scheme, the banning of plastic straws and leasehold reforms emerge.
BEIS meanwhile is likely to be getting close to responding to Dieter Helm’s review of the Cost of Energy and its own consultations on the gig economy, the question being whether they use the Conference platform or standalone moments later in the autumn.
Even a blockbuster set of domestic announcements won’t prevent Brexit dominating. Disquiet over Chequers, memories of last year’s error strewn denouement and the gauntlet that Boris will lay down on Tuesday put more pressure on the Prime Minister’s speech than any at a Conservative Conference since David Cameron eschewed notes in 2007 and told Gordon Brown to “call that election” in his successful bid to make him do precisely the opposite.
The job of writing it falls to Keelan Carr, who cemented his reputation with an excellent speech for the Westminster Correspondent’s Dinner in March – albeit in a more light hearted setting. He will work closely with JoJo Penn and Gavin Barwell, the PM’s two most senior aides and Alex Dawson, the political director, to try and walk the fine line of putting forward a coherent policy vision whilst papering over the increasingly deep policy divisions.
The fuse towards that reckoning will be lit in tomorrow’s papers as the first round of weekend Ministerial interviews, traditionally divvied out by No10, appear. Last year, Boris kicked things off by unilaterally announcing ‘four Brexit red lines’ to the dismay of most of the rest of the cabinet.
So at least, they have a reasonable chance of a better start.