Close-up on Conservative Party Conference

30 September 2016

When the Conservative Party congregated in Manchester last year, the mood was one of jubilation. Having been re-elected with a majority, the Cameron ministry’s programme for government, based on fiscal constraint, devolution and internationalism, appeared to have been vindicated and endorsed by the British public.

This year’s Conference in Birmingham will be held in rather changed circumstances. The leading lights of the Conservative party last year are now retreating into memoirs and think tanks, and in their place is a coalition of the old guard and triumphant eurosceptics.

Having taken power in the melee that followed the result of the vote for Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May will now have the opportunity to present a coordinated agenda for her Government.

The focus will inevitably be on the most fundamental issue underlying politics at present, namely the question of how she plans to implement Brexit.

However, she will also seek to use this event as a platform to detail her Cabinet’s broader vision for the country, which she first began to outline on the steps of Downing Street. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of the items in the Conference agenda include the phrase “works for everyone”.

It will also be important for Ms May to prove the strength of the somewhat uneasy alliance within her Cabinet between those who campaigned for the status quo and those hankering radical change in Britain’s role in the world. More than perhaps ever before, this Party Conference will take place under the gaze of an international community increasingly perturbed by the sea change that has taken place in UK politics.

Sunday

Somewhat unconventionally, Prime Minister Theresa May will speak on the first day of the Party Conference to discuss how to “make a success of Brexit”. A trio of Brexiteers will follow her, with Brexit Secretary David Davies, International Development Secretary Priti Patel and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson all due to take the stage.

Exactly what she will say is far from clear, given that the Government’s official stance on Brexit until now has largely been a refusal to “give a running commentary” on negotiations and an insistence that it would take time to develop Britain’s stance to Brexit.

People will be particularly sensitive to any discussion of limits to immigration, with the Financial Times reporting on serious concerns in the City of London that this issue is increasingly taking precedence over the protection of the financial services sector.

Key Fringes

  • Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Greg Clark speaking at the Resolution Foundation event What does a post-Brexit industrial strategy look like?
  • International Trade Secretary Dr Liam Fox speaking at the Huffington Post UK event Waugh Zone Live: Secretary of State for International Trade, Dr Liam Fox - In Conversation With Paul Waugh
  • Education Secretary Justine Greening speaking at the Apprenticeships Forum Reception

Monday

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Greg Clark will open the proceedings today, and will be expected to further detail what exactly the Government’s industrial strategy will be. In particular, we may see more discussion of rules around foreign investment in UK infrastructure, which were first raised in the context of the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant decision.

There may also be further announcements on infrastructure from the Transport Secretary, with a potential focus on rail. Ministers may also shed further light on their decision about the third runway in the South East, which is expected to be announced this autumn.

This will also be the first occasion where the new Chancellor Philip Hammond will be able to detail his plans. He has already indicated that he will pursue a looser fiscal policy than his predecessor, but his speech will be watched closely for any hints on the upcoming Autumn Statement.

The day will close with a speech from International Trade Secretary Dr Liam Fox. Among the most outspoken of the Cabinet on the future plans for Brexit, his speech may also contain details of some of the proposed trade deals he has trumpeted since his appointment.

Key Fringes

  • Brexit Secretary David Davies speaking at the Chatham House event Britain outside the EU
  • Energy Minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe speaking at the Bright Blue and NIA event The role of nuclear in Britain's economy and energy mix
  • Home Secretary Amber Rudd speaking at the Times event Beyond Brexit: The Times interview, Rt Hon Amber Rudd MP, Home Secretary, in conversation with Matt Chorley, Editor of The Times Red Box political briefing

Tuesday

The Secretaries of State for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will begin the morning by discussing the future of the Union. Though they are likely to mostly reinforce the message of continued unity and cooperation between the nations of the UK, they may also unveil details of future plans for devolution and coordination during the Brexit process.

Several speeches from key members of the Cabinet will follow, most notably from Education Secretary Justine Greening and the embattled Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Ms Greening, who is promoting controversial proposals for new grammar schools, is likely to declare a focus on inclusivity and maximising achievement. Meanwhile, Mr Hunt will likely comment on the ongoing dispute over junior doctors’ contracts

Key Fringes

  • Digital and Culture Minister Matthew Hancock speaking at the Reform and BBC event UK media fit for the digital era
  • BEIS Secretary Greg Clark speaking at the ConservativeHome and Smart Energy GB How can technology and innovation transform Britain’s energy market?
  • Transport Secretary Chris Grayling speaking at the UK 2020 event Building the infrastructure of today and tomorrow

Wednesday

Ruth Davidson, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, will take to the stage today. A popular figure in Scottish politics in spite of the stigma surrounding her party, she is notable for being sceptical of the plans to Brexit and may provide a foil to some of the “Brexit mean Brexit” rhetoric from the preceding days.

Concluding the Conference, Prime Minister Theresa May will return to the stage and outline her broader vision for the country. As ever, there are also likely to be key new policy proposals to be included in the Prime Minister’s speech.

Though details of her comments will likely be kept under wraps until the day, key themes will be anticipated beforehand. She has already placed a great emphasis on issues such as social justice, which we can expect will form the backbone of her speech. However, she may also be expected to reveal further details on her more interventionist economic approach.

DeHavilland will be providing extensive coverage of the Conservative Party Conference live from Birmingham, including original reports from a wide selection of fringe meetings. For further information about our definitive conference coverage, please contact your Monitoring Consultant.

Madhav Bakshi, Political Analyst
Madhav Bakshi
Political Analyst

Madhav Bakshi is a Political Analyst within DeHavilland’s Editorial Team and leads on Energy policy. He is a graduate of King’s College London, where he studied International Politics.