Groundhog Day in Birmingham
“Opportunity” was the word of the week at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. The party leadership wanted to push the message of the Conservatives as the party of opportunity for all. However, walking around the conference centre, popping into the many events, it looked like the message most had received was that this was the opportunity for aspiring party leaders to make their pitch.
If this sounds familiar and brings back memories of last year’s conference and its aftermath, it is because, well, it’s true. A year ago, Brexit was the biggest challenge - the party and its leader had made no progress in finding a solution to it, Theresa May seemed very vulnerable after squandering David Cameron’s majority with a snap election, Boris was Boris and the party as a whole had lost its vision and sense of direction.
Fast forward to this year: Brexit is still the biggest issue, Theresa May seemed even more vulnerable after putting together the divisive “free trade deal” (we are no longer allowed to call it "Chequers"), Boris is undermining the Prime Minister from the backbenches and the party still cannot figure out what it stands for when it is not tearing itself apart about Brexit.
The one thing that changed and shook things up was this year’s Labour conference. With Labour looking much more credible as a government in waiting than it did in previous years, the conversation off the main stage was all about what the party has to offer to post-Brexit Britain.
Outside of Westminster, people have stopped talking about Brexit, correctly assuming it will happen, in some way. What they are really concerned about is their wage has not increased since 2008, their public services are getting cut, the affordable homes are in short supply, and their government has only been talking about Brexit and austerity for a very long time.
Luckily, many party members, Ministers and MPs have realised that the Conservative party does not have the answers to these problems; or if it does, it is not passionately talking about its vision for the future. And away from the big speeches, the debate was all about the future and the real challenges. How can the Conservatives make the case to struggling people for a better kind of capitalism that delivers for everyone? What can be done to improve productivity and wages? How can more and better homes be built with the support of local communities? And, above all, how can the Conservative party, in government for over eight years now, renew itself and stand as the party for positive change at the next general election, set for 2022?
Beyond the news headlines, beyond the Brexit drama, the message from the party faithful to their elected representatives was clear: we have a very real challenge on our hands, in the threatening form of Corbyn’s Labour, and we need to get our act together, or the Conservatives won’t stand a chance. The Brexit soundbites are no longer good enough.