As rivals jockey for position, Theresa May must show she has the answers to the Tories’ woes
Conservative gloom is deep ahead of their conference next week. They know they need to change – or demography will do for them.
Labour lost the election, but you would never have known it. “This feels like a victory party,” said one shadow minister, observing the happy delegates enjoying the sun-drenched Brighton seafront. Now the political caravan moves on to Manchester, to a conference held by a party that won the election, but feels like it lost.
Theresa May’s task is to drag the Conservative party out of its post-election malaise and to move the conversation away from Brexit and on to a domestic agenda, intended to deliver her idea of a country that “works for all”.
None of those tasks will be easy. The Tory gloom is deep: the 2017 general election has left the party facing an uphill struggle to re-energise itself. One survey showed the “tipping point” age at which a voter was more likely to vote Tory at the election than Labour was 47.
Whatever one thinks of Jeremy Corbyn and his Momentum fan club, they know how to put on a party conference. “The World Transformed”, a series of events on the fringes at Brighton, was a raucous celebration of youthful energy, optimism and fun.
George Freeman, the Conservative MP who recently organised an “ideas festival”, was mocked for running a “Tory Glastonbury” but is on to something: the Tories need to change or demography will do for them. David Cameron understood that; polls suggest Theresa May repels many young voters.
She understands that, which is why she wants the Tory conference to showcase new thinking on policies that appeal to the young: her ministers and think tanks have been working on policies on housing, cutting student debt and mental health among others.
But there are several problems. Usually the Conservative manifesto would be a guide to government action: the reality is that Mrs May has pulped that unloved document and is having to develop policies from scratch at high speed. Many are not ready.
The second is that whatever policies Mrs May devises, she will need to get them through the House of Commons with a working majority of just 13. Ministers know they cannot rely on the support of Labour to get them through smoothly, no matter how progressive they might be.
“Whatever we do, Labour will amend the legislation to make it look like they are making a generous offer to the young and poor and we are the bad guys,” admits one gloomy minister.
Then, of course, there is the “B” word. Mrs May’s Florence speech might have been hailed as “constructive” in European capitals, but it has not played well on the Tory right, who woke up the next day to see headlines saying “Brexit delayed until 2021”.
Mrs May’s team say that her big conference speech will have a domestic focus but it will also address Brexit: expect some red meat for the activists, reminding them that no matter how awkward a two-year transition period might be, “independence” on money, laws and borders lies at the end.
That might not be enough to calm nerves. The run-up to the Tory conference has seen Boris Johnson setting out his Brexit vision and new “red lines” on a transition that Mrs May has no intention of respecting.
The Conservative party is in no mood at the moment to indulge Mr Johnson or any other potential leadership contenders, but there will be inevitable jockeying by those who spy their chance at some time after March 2019 – the official date for Brexit and the moment when many believe Mrs May will start packing her bags.
Expect to see a lot of Jacob Rees-Mogg, darling of the party faithful and an unlikely icon for young Tories, over the course of the next few days. Mr Rees-Mogg might represent an unlikely version of a Conservative future – but these are strange times in politics.
George Parker is political editor of the Financial Times