To the unlikely music of Abba’s Dancing Queen, British Prime Minister Theresa May took to the stage and delivered her third annual Conference speech as Leader of the Conservative Party.
The hall was packed with party faithful, journalists, backbench MPs and the Cabinet. Although people had been queuing for up to two hours to gain entry there was a somewhat reserved atmosphere especially after the difficult speech of last year.
This all changed when the Government’s new Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox QC, warmed up the audience before the Prime Minister bounced on to the stage.
Mr Cox, whose voice is a cross between James Earl Jones and Churchill, electrified the room with his rousing and patriotic oration defending the Prime Minister and asking the party to stand by her.
I passionately believe that our best days lie ahead of us and that our future is full of promise – Theresa May
This was in the wake of backbench MP, James Duddridge telling Radio 4 that he plans to send his letter of no confidence to 1922 Committee Chairman, Sir Graham Brady.
In her preamble the Prime Minister highlighted the centenary of the ending of the First World War and cited the post-war determination of the United Kingdom to build a new society that was more democratic and worked for everyone.
This is the core theme which ran throughout Mrs May’s speech.
She began by highlighting how confrontational and ugly politics have recently become, and said it was for the Conservative party to set the standard of public debate. She attacked the Labour party as having been taken over by the hard left, and called on the Conservatives to prevent Jeremy Corbyn from bringing such divisiveness to the rest of the UK by being a decent, moderate and patriotic party which can reach out to all corners of society particularly those traditional labour voters repelled by the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
She emphasised that the Conservatives are the party of opportunity and cited the backgrounds of the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid; Conservative candidate for the London Mayoralty, Shaun Bailey, and leader of the Scottish conservatives Ruth Davidson as evidence of this.
On health, Theresa May praised the NHS as embodying Conservative values, and vowed to always defend it. She cited the £394 million per week cash boost for the NHS provided by the Conservative Government, and announced a new cancer strategy which would increase the rate of early diagnosis and embrace the latest technologies, with the aim of saving 55,000 more lives by 2028.
The Prime Minister also addressed national security, and positioned herself as a decisive leader on issues such as the use of chemical weapons in Syria and more recently Salisbury.
She criticised Jeremy Corbyn’s mistrust of Nato and his support for Russia, and channelled her inner Mrs Thatcher by saying that the UK “cannot outsource its conscious to the Kremlin.”
Her speech turned inevitably to Brexit. She defended her Chequers proposals as a mechanism to enable free trade with the EU, whilst protecting supply chains and the Union.
She criticised both the proposed Canada trading model and also remaining in the Single Market. Mrs May pledged to honour the result of the 2016 EU Referendum, officially ruling out a second vote, and asserted her willingness to walk away from the negotiations if the EU do not offer proposals which respect the result and integrity of the Union, further doubling down on her refusal to countenance a border emerging between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The Prime Minister acknowledged that a Hard Brexit would be disruptive to the both the UK and EU. But she insisted that the fundamental strengths of the UK will ensure that the country emerges a strong and outward looking champion of free trade.
Mrs May’s remarks on Brexit, which follow the speech made by her Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab earlier at Conference, would seem to be an indicator indicator that the Government will make no further concessions following the disastrous Salzburg summit in September.
On immigration the Prime Minister restated her newly announced post-Brexit strategy, which will be based on skills not country of origin. She also said that the end of free movement will encourage UK businesses to invest in new technologies and in training their existing workforce.
Mrs May addressed the Conservative Party’s role as a champion of business and steward of the economy.
She praised the role played by capitalism in reducing poverty and criticised the Labour Party’s own economic record whilst in Government.
The Prime Minister was particularly critical of the promises made by Jeremy Corbyn at Labour Party Conference, and warned that his policies would be damaging to businesses, drive away investment and cost the UK tax payer £1 Trillion.
Millions of people who have never supported our party in the past are appalled by what Jeremy Corbyn has done to Labour – Theresa May
In contrast she highlighted the current Government’s role in reducing Corporation tax, driving employment and cutting the deficit. She also positioned the Conservative party as a champion of the consumer, citing existing polices such as the energy price cap and promised to introduce a system of auto-compensation for passengers of delayed trains.
Perhaps the biggest policy initiatives announced by Mrs May in her speech were those designed to fix the housing market. These include a pledge to introduce a higher rate of stamp duty for overseas buyers purchasing homes in the UK, with the money raised being used to address rough sleeping, as well as a promise to lift the cap on Local Authorities borrowing against their Housing Revenue Account to help fund new housing developments.
She also tackled the cost of living and said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would once again freeze fuel duty.
As a final ray of hope to the public, Mrs May promised that with the national debt beginning to fall after years of austerity the next Government Spending Review will see new investment in public services.
To conclude her speech the Prime Minister returned to her favourite theme –creating a country which works for all elements of society and is ready for the future.
She highlighted the investment currently being made in transport infrastructure and R&D, and promised to build more academies and free schools.
Mrs May closed by reiterating that the UK stands at a pivotal moment in history, and that with Brexit and the end of austerity approaching, the Conservative Party must unite to offer real leadership to “build a better Britain” and tackle those burning injustices which she first mentioned on the steps of 10 Downing Street back in 2016.
After the Prime Minister finished, the members were invigorated with a Party now firmly put in the centre.
This was a speech of hope and many felt that. However with people still suffering from the effects of austerity, can Mrs May really reach out to those with this speech and get them to vote for her?