Politics 3 October 2018 | 8:15

May must offer more than just platitudes

03 October 2018 08:15

It is absolutely no accident that, on the day of her conference speech, the Daily Telegraph has been told of a Cabinet plot to oust Theresa May if she declines to set out a timetable for resignation.

Tory activists will be reading this in their favourite newspaper on the last day of their tribal gathering in Birmingham, and wondering how long the Prime Minister can truly last.

That May has survived in the job is both remarkable and, as I argued on Saturday, ridiculous. Paradoxically, she may have been bolstered – at least within the parliamentary party – by Boris Johnson’s ferocious attack on the Chequers deal yesterday.

The former Foreign Secretary’s pitch for the top job went down well with many party members and some senior MPs. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the general determination of his Westminster colleagues to thwart his untamed ambition. As one Cabinet minister put it to me: ‘I have now reached the point where I would do literally anything to stop him getting what he wants.’

May’s task today is not only to persuade her party to unite – a formidable challenge in itself – but to stretch out a hand to the voters, too. She must do more than defend the Chequers plan for Brexit, and declare, platitudinously, that Britain’s ‘best days lie ahead’. She has to show that her party has more to offer than populist stunts and slogans: that it understands the day-to-day anxieties and hopes of voters, and aspires to address them systematically (rather than, as populists always do, simply parrot those emotions back).

Not so long ago, the Conservatives were a serious party of government, determined to enhance prosperity, reform public services and maximise the nation’s potential. Even their foes acknowledged that the Tories meant business – as recently as the years of their coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Now, they cut a sorry figure, stripped of their Commons majority, led by a Prime Minister with negligible authority, lumbering towards a potentially disastrous departure from the EU.

Last year, May coughed her way through her speech. Today, her first priority will be to reach the last page without such paroxysms. In that respect, we wish her good luck. Beyond that, let us say, our expectations are not high.