Thoughts ahead of the party conference season.
This summer has had a different feel to it than the summer of 2016. Last year, there really was daily breaking news following Leave’s unexpected victory on 23rd June: David Cameron’s resignation; Boris’s assassination; the leadership election that never happened between Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May; the creation of two new Government departments; mass resignations from Labour's front bench; and the unexpectedly swift acceptance of Brexit when the shock recession predicted by George Osborne and the Remain campaign did not materialise.
This year, it has sometimes felt like the media wanted the parliamentary recess to be as news heavy as the summer of 2016, or indeed the summer of 2015 after David Cameron's surprise general election victory. Differences in emphasis on Brexit were written up as huge Cabinet rifts; the summer musings of aspiring political heavyweights were reported as leadership positioning; and an Observer op-ed by Sir Keir Starmer was reported as a significant shift in Labour’s position on Brexit. I’ll believe that when Jeremy Corbyn repeats it.
In truth, Westminster was notably quiet over August, recovering from a hectic two years of politics, and the parliamentary press corps therefore indulged themselves with a more traditional summer 'silly season' where, for example, the temporary silencing of Big Ben's bongs was allowed to become front page news for days on end. If you hadn’t picked up a newspaper over the summer, you wouldn’t have missed much. But now we have Parliament returning for two weeks in September, followed by the party conference season; so what position do the leaders find themselves in, and what should we expect?
First up are the Liberal Democrats, meeting in Bournemouth in mid-September. The most notable take-away from the Lib Dem conference is likely to be the publication of Sir Vince Cable’s first novel, Open Arms, soon to be available in all good bookshops. It is difficult to see how else the Lib Dems will cut through and capture the public’s imagination. Upon his election as leader (unopposed), Cable tried to position himself as the UK’s answer to Emmanuel Macron, France’s dynamic 39-year-old President. This is a tough act for a 74-year-old, and would surely require even more make-up. Cable bears a closer resemblance to another former Lib Dem leader, Ming Campbell, who also earned the respect of the media as a commentator (in his case on foreign affairs, rather than economic policy), but failed to capture the public’s imagination as a credible opposition leader, let alone potential Prime Minister.
There is also no guarantee that the centrist populism of President Macron will prove to be any more popular in the UK than it currently is in France, where Macron’s approval ratings now sit below those of Sarkozy or Hollande at the same (relatively early) point in their presidencies. For a while, it was fashionable to say that the Lib Dems would occupy a similar position in post-Brexit British politics as UKIP did before the referendum: gathering a solid, consistent 15% in the polls by representing those taking an uncompromising line on EU membership – although in their case acting as a voice for those who want Britain to stay in the EU. This has clearly been their strategy since the referendum – advocating a second referendum and recommending that Britain permanently remains in the Single Market – but it failed to inspire people at the general election and, unlike for UKIP in years gone by, there will be no future European elections where voters can focus specifically on this one issue and make a point by way of a protest vote. At a time of clear blue water between the Conservatives and Labour, two-party politics has returned, and Sir Vince Cable’s challenge is to work out what – if any – niche the Lib Dems can now fill to stay relevant.
From Bournemouth, the politicos will then head to Brighton for the Labour Party conference, in the final week of September. Jeremy Corbyn’s position has never been stronger. Having ‘won’ the general election in the eyes of his supporters, he has refuted the charge from his political opponents that an election fought under his leadership would be a catastrophe and see Labour fall to its lowest ever vote share and seat representation of modern times. In the wake of the surprise result, moderate MPs such as Chuka Umunna swiftly declared their loyalty and veteran Blairite strategist John McTernan even became a member of Momentum. It would take a curmudgeon not at least to acknowledge and respect Corbyn’s resilience after two years of ridicule.
That said, Jeremy Corbyn’s position is not without its difficulties, in the form of party management, Brexit and economic policy. On party management, the biggest cause of disagreement is likely to be the proposals to change the leadership election rules, which would reduce the number of parliamentary endorsements needed by future candidates from 15 per cent of MPs and MEPs to a more manageable (for a Corbyn protégé) 5 per cent. Labour Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell – who is said to be positioning himself as Corbyn’s successor – used an interview in August to play down the significance of the new so-called ‘McDonnell rule’, but it is still set to be a source of contention in Brighton and there is already speculation that key unions are preparing a compromise proposal of 10 per cent that would satisfy the hard left (at least for the time being). With talk of Momentum intending to deselect Labour MPs who are not sufficiently loyal to Corbyn, and ongoing issues concerning anti-semitism, things might look rosy on the surface, but tensions still remain. And the tensions won’t just come from the Blairite wing of the Labour Party. It will be interesting to see what some of the new, younger, radicalised party members make of the summer U-turn on tuition fees. The Jeremy Corbyn who attracted NME readers and Glastonbury revellers was a fearless, principled ideological warrior: he didn’t buckle under Tory attacks and he didn’t compromise.
On Brexit, the Labour Party has made David Davis’s negotiating strategy of ‘constructive ambiguity’ a model for its electoral strategy. But reassuring voters in Labour’s traditional heartlands about ending freedom of movement, whilst making noises about staying in the Single Market during the transition period to voters in Battersea and Kensington, is not a viable long-term strategy. Sir Keir Starmer’s recent article in the Observer was written up as a change in strategy by the Labour Party. In reality, as has happened so many times in the past year, it is likely to be ‘clarified’ in the coming weeks to reassure the almost 40 per cent of Labour voters who supported Brexit in the referendum, not to mention the previous UKIP voters who switched to it at the general election.
Perhaps of greatest interest in Brighton will be what is said in the conference hall and on the fringes about economic policy: in particular, what Labour’s Shadow Chancellor says. John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn came into politics to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy and Tony Blair’s rewriting of Clause IV of the Labour Party’s constitution was a setback for the Corbynistas, not a sign of progress. That said, there are murmurings that the Labour leadership recognise that their traditional hard-left positions of nationalisation, higher taxes and strengthening the trade unions are not a winning formula for the final push to victory. The Conservative attacks over the summer about Corbyn and McDonnell’s support for the ruling socialist regime in Venezuela have hit home, and will be even more potent now Labour has a seemingly credible path to victory at the next election, and voters start to weigh up Labour as a party of government. Their ideological instinct will be to double down on their left-wing populism, but the memory that Tony Blair only won when he promised to match Ken Clarke’s spending plans still abides, and retaining seats like Canterbury and Kensington will require an economic change of tack.
After the Labour conference, political journalists and lobbyists will then head to Manchester for the Conservative Party conference. Those hoping for the political adrenalin fix of a leadership election – either actual or by proxy – are likely to be disappointed. After an understandable wobble immediately after the general election, the Conservative Party has regrouped. This unity runs deeper than appearances in front of the cameras, and goes beyond the Brexiteers keen to secure Britain’s exit from the European Union. There is widespread recognition from all sections of the party that Labour now poses a serious electoral threat (it has regularly been polling a few points ahead of the Conservatives over the summer) and that an early election could herald a Labour government, possibly in coalition with the SNP.
Moreover, whilst many in Westminster hit the beach, Theresa May put the summer to good use reshaping her team. The most significant but under-reported developments of the summer were the new appointments to No. 10. The appointment of the former Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell as her Chief of Staff immediately shored up the Prime Minister’s position after the election. As well as having a deep understanding of the Conservative Party machine and the parliamentary party, Barwell’s knowledge of housing policy from his time as Minister of State is also significant. The Government’s commitment to build a million new homes by 2020, and a further half a million by 2022, is not only right, but key to attracting back the under-40 voters who switched their support away from the Conservatives at the election. Also important was the appointment of the former BBC producer Robbie Gibb as No. 10’s Communications Director. As well as being widely respected in the Lobby and being more well-versed than most when it comes to understanding how the broadcast media operate, Gibb has first-hand political experience, having worked for the Conservatives when they were in opposition in the late 1990s. Along with the PM’s Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, and Political Secretary, Stephen Parkinson, these backroom operators have quietly, but effectively, steadied the ship.
Also worth noting is the resilience of the ‘confidence and supply’ agreement negotiated with the DUP to give the Government a working majority. It was (unfairly) the source of controversy after the election, with some suggesting that the largest party in Northern Ireland was somehow an unsuitable partner for the Conservatives. This criticism was unfair because they are officially called the Conservative and Unionist Party, and Labour held talks with the DUP after the 2010 election, when Gordon Brown attempted to cling on to power. Whilst these murmurings have now gone away, the numbers in Parliament are still tight. While rumours that Sinn Féin MPs are considering taking up their seats in the Commons are pretty wide of the mark, Nick Brown, Labour’s Chief Whip, has unsurprisingly spent the summer plotting how to make life as difficult as possible for the Government. Only the end of recess will show how real this threat is, but securing the passage of parliamentary business will not be as easy as it was previously.
The big task ahead for the Conservatives in Manchester is to outline their vision for post-Brexit Britain. The Prime Minister did a good job describing her vision for Britain’s future relationship with the European Union at the beginning of the year in the Lancaster House speech, and it is notable that we have heard more of that consensual, constructive language in the weeks following the election. But the piece missing at the moment is the wider vision for Britain. The election showed that voters are not solely focused on Brexit; they have other concerns and aspirations that they want the Government to address. Visitors to Downing Street have to leave their mobile phones at the front door, so they have no distractions in the waiting room and few things to look at. All they have to read is the text of the speech which Theresa May made when she entered No. 10 for the first time as Prime Minister, on 13th July 2016, which addressed people who were ‘just about managing’ and outlined her vision for the country. The content for a big vision speech is there, but it needs to be restated, and Manchester will provide the platform for that.
Encouragingly, a taster for the post-Brexit vision came over the summer, when Jake Berry, the new Northern Powerhouse Minister, confirmed the Government’s commitment to improving rail travel across northern England, including high-speed rail lines from Liverpool to Hull. Significant investment in infrastructure is integral to preparing for Brexit, to ensure that Britain continues to attract investment and remains competitive. Consideration about how Britain approaches regulation and taxation post-Brexit is also necessary, and will be followed closely by investors. The EU referendum showed that the UK is bigger than London and highlighted the divide between the capital and the rest of the country. Ensuring that policy is not simply geared to London and the South East is not only right, but also electorally necessary, for all parties. Neil O’Brien, one of the architects of the Northern Powerhouse strategy at Policy Exchange and as an adviser at the Treasury, is now the MP for Harborough. He has one of the best policy brains around, and is one to watch.
Many people wrote off the Prime Minister following the election, and compared her unfavourably to the recently-elected President Macron. Over the summer, Macron’s approval rating has slumped from 57 per cent immediately after his election to 37 per cent now. In contrast, Theresa May’s has crept up fractionally, from 29 per cent to 31 per cent. Another female leader facing election this month is Angela Merkel, who is a dead cert to be re-elected German Chancellor and is presented internationally by her advisers as being the unofficial leader of the free world. What many people forget is her first election campaign in 2005, where she started the campaign with a 21 per cent lead over her rival, Gerhard Schröder, but stumbled badly in the campaign and fell back to win with only a 1 per cent advantage in terms of votes, and just four more seats. Before writing off the Prime Minister, commentators should remember Merkel’s first campaign, and remember who had the last laugh. The summer may have been quiet but a lot has changed.