Ok, ok, before we get to the meat we're going to let you watch the dance.
Yes, it took us a few goes before we could think about anything else. Ready to get going on the meat of it, though? Here you go:
After last year’s coughing fit at Theresa May's flagship speech at the Conservative Party Conference, there was no doubt that this year, anything would be an improvement. And following Boris Johnson’s rallying cry to chuck May’s Chequers Brexit deal, she was under the compulsion, more than ever, to unite a warring party, a warring Parliament and a warring country.
But did it succeed? Well, optics-wise, there was very little coughing, and of course, she danced onto the stage to the tune of ABBA’s Dancing Queen, laughing at herself in a neat self-referential bid to show the personality she’s long been accused of lacking. And, unlike last year, when the letters behind her spelling out ‘Building A Country That Works For Everyone’ fell off the pinboard they were attached to - like a sputtering clown car - the words ‘Opportunity’ were, quite fittingly, spelt out on a digital screen.
The driving message of the speech was unity. That’s across the Conservative party, across the benches in Parliament and across the country as we all hurtle towards May’s dream of Brexit. As well as showing support for arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees Mogg, whose children had to witness a far left protestor slagging him off, May extended an olive branch to a far less likely target: ‘The first black woman ever to be elected to the House of Commons receives more racist and misogynist messages today than when she first stood over 30 years ago. You don’t have to agree with a word Diane Abbott says to believe passionately in her right to say it, free from threats and abuse.’
Abbott, the former Shadow Home Secretary whose image was used in the 2017 election campaign by Conservatives very happy to leverage racist and misogynist disapproval of Abbott, in order to win votes, wasn’t impressed. During the speech, she tweeted her surprise that May would be so nice, alongside a Conservative party campaign poster from the 2017 election:
May spoke highly of previous Labour leaders, saying, ‘At least they had some basic qualities everybody could respect…they were proud of Britain…’ unlike, she insisted, the current Labour Party leader.
The overtones of her comments were in support for moderate Labour MPs, members and supporters not usually used to love from the Conservatives, ’Would Neil Kinnock…have stood by while his own MPs faced deselection and needed police protection at their conference? Would Jim Callaghan… ask the Russian government to confirm the findings of our own intelligence department? Would Clement Attlee…tell British Jews they didn’t know the meaning of antisemitism?’
As well as attacking the Labour leadership for ‘not acting in the national interest, but in their own political interest.’, more specifically, Corbyn was a huge focus. According to May, he dismissed the true causes of the Russian-ordered poisoning of Sergei Skripal on British soil, and his flagship policy of putting workers on boards of all big companies is a ‘giant stealth tax on enterprise’.
May later lamented: ‘What has befallen Labour is a national tragedy’, while audaciously borrowing slogans from two prominent faces of Labour. Quoting the late Remainer Labour MP Jo Cox, May said we - as in the UK, rather than Cox’s initial reference to the EU - have ‘more in common than that which divides us’. London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s post-Brexit ‘London is Open’ campaign was also bastardised in May’s speech when she declared: ’Britain under my Conservative government is open for business.’
And her Conservative government means hers, as she took a pop at everyone, even those in her own ranks, who aren't convinced by Brexit. ‘There are plenty of prominent people in British politics…who want to stop Brexit in its tracks…they call it a people’s vote. But we had the people’s vote and the people chose to leave,’ she said. If this is her rendition of unity, we’d all do best never to see what May's discord looks like.
On a broader, national scale, May impressed, over and over, that the Conservatives are for everyone, that they’re ‘a party not for the few not even the many but for everyone who works hard and plays by the rules. ‘
Part of this appeal to the masses involved a shout-out to a diverse range of high-profile Conservatives: first, was Sajid Javid, who has just devised a plan to restrict immigration to all but the most skilled workers, and was nearly in tears when May said ‘If your mum and dad arrived from Pakistan on a plane, you can become Home Secretary.’ Then came a nod to Esther McVey, who used her own conference speech to say she was a ‘Barnardo’s child’ as May said ‘If you spent time in care, you can sit in the cabinet.’ LGBTQ+ rights were also bigged up via the mention of Ruth Davidson, ‘If you’re pregnant with your first child and engaged to your girlfriend, you could be the first minister of Scotland.’
However, rather than accept responsibility for the Home Office blunder which saw thousands of the Windrush Generation, who helped rebuild Postwar Britain facing deportation, May referenced the disaster to rouse support for Shaun Bailey, the Conservative pick for the 2020 London mayoral elections: ‘If your parents come to the UK as part of the Windrush Generation, you could become the next London mayor.’ The camera quickly tried to find Bailey, who was sitting a few rows back from the party’s big names and cabinet members.
Another part of May’s quest to show we’re all in this together, was to become relevant to the masses: there was a dirty joke about there being a ‘four letter word…ending in k’ that the Conservatives want to do to businesses, and that’s ‘back’ them. May also name-checked The Bodyguard, admitting she’s been too busy with Brexit to watch it: ‘[Politics is] not always glamorous, I’ve seen the trailers for the bodyguard and let me tell you, it wasn’t like that in my day’. One groaning mention of free trade’s influence on flat-pack furniture might have bristled the Swedish ambassador who’d previously condoned May’s use of ABBA as entrance music, but that dance provoked more laughs later. Talking up the trade opportunities with Africa, May mentioned that, on her recent visit to South Africa, she met young people who ‘wanted to be lawyers, they wanted to be doctors, they might have felt inspired to dance…maybe not.’
And then came the policies. On housing, alongside charging higher rates of stamp duty for foreign investors, and putting that money into preventing rough sleeping, May announced a scrap of the cap on council borrowing to make homes. She boomed: ‘We will help you get on the housing ladder, and we will build the homes this country needs. Fuel duty, May promised, will be frozen in next month’s budget, because ‘For millions of people their car is not a luxury, it’s a necessity’. In a touching moment, she announced a new NHS cancer strategy which will focus early cancer detections, mentioning that it might save people like her god-daughter, who recently died of the disease.
There was also the promise that, should Brexit go well, as in, May’s way, public sector workers who’ve had their pay frozen would see that thaw, because ‘after a decade of austerity people need to know their hard work has paid off.’
What was the point of this unity, of these attacks on Corbyn in the name of togetherness, of these aphorisms that ‘Every person, no matter their gender, no matter their class, has an equal chance,’? That ‘If we stick together and hold our nerve I know we can get a deal that delivers for Britain’? As well as displaying the old Conservative spirit of self-determination, May wants to build up support for her Brexit deal. ‘I passionately believe that our best days lie ahead of us and the future is full of promise’, she said, with the implied caveat that it’s her way or chaos.
No longer calling it ‘the Chequers deal’ after badges bearing the slogan ‘chuck Chequers’ have sold a job lot at the party conference, the new ‘free trade deal’ she said, is the only way of securing a decent future. May is optimistic, apparently, but only if her vision is upheld by everyone; the Conservatives, the Labour Party with its sizable minority and a mandate from members to push for a second referendum if needs be, and the great British public, as well as Northern Ireland. As she put it: ‘We need to come together now. If we all go off in our different directions…we risk ending up with no Brexit at all.' But was it enough to bind all the flailing, angry limbs of our political ecosystem? Is the future of the country really ‘in our hands together’? After all, speaking to a crowd mainly comprised of Conservative activists who, want a hard Brexit to go full-steam ahead, her line ‘Britain isn’t afraid to leave with no deal if we have to,’ got far more cheers than she ever have planned for, dancing or no dancing