May delivers a mea culpa. She acknowledged her election campaign was “too scripted, too presidential” and allowed Labour to paint the Tories as the party of continuity. This was an implicit criticism of Lynton Crosby, who crafted the overarching “strong and stable” message, rather than her former adviser Nick Timothy, who was in charge of the disastrous manifesto. May also gave a direct apology to activists, something she had avoided several times previously. The passage was well received by the hall, which gave extended applause for her decision to start the speech by eating some humble pie.
An independent review of mental health provision. The first new announcement of the speech was a promise to launch a review of how the NHS and other public services deal with people suffering mental health problems. She has asked Prof Sir Simon Wessely to review the Mental Health Act with a view to updating the law. This is part of May’s promise to deal with “burning injustices” and inequality in how people of different races are treated, as she tries to turn the focus on to her domestic agenda and away from Brexit. The prime minister claimed repeatedly: “That’s what I’m in this for,” which appeared to be an attempt to show she is still motivated and has clear policy goals after the personal disappointment of the election result.
No new detail on Brexit. The Florence speech last week was intended to deal with developments on Brexit, revealing new information about how she sees the transition period. She spent just 10 paragraphs in this conference speech on issues of leaving the European Union, merely repeating promises about a new “deep and special partnership” and reassurances for EU citizens that a deal on their rights will be reached. It was a sign that May really wants to emphasise her domestic agenda and fight against the inevitability that her premiership will be engulfed by Brexit.
New council homes and more housebuilding. A major theme of May’s speech was the promise of a “British dream” for young people, strongly echoing Ed Miliband’s promise in 2014 to help them fulfil the “British dream” of home ownership. The big announcement was that May will meet the Conservative manifesto promise to renew the building of council and social housing, making £2bn available. Councils and housing associations will be able to bid for the money and provide certainty over future rent levels, with some homes being built for social rent below market levels. This added to earlier announcements at the party conference by Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, that he would extend help to buy and give more protection to tenants. There is a risk though that these measures will be seen as insufficient compared with Labour’s promise to build a million homes, of which half would be council houses.
A cap on energy bills. May promised to end “rip-off energy prices” with a new cap on bills, fulfilling a manifesto promise that looked set to be watered down. There was very little detail in the speech though about how many people the cap will cover and whether it will be an absolute cap or a limit on rises. This is another policy that straightforwardly copies Miliband, who was mocked by the Tories for returning to marxism when he unveiled a two-year energy price freeze before the last election. It also showed May and the business secretary, Greg Clark, have seen off objections from the chancellor, Philip Hammond, and Javid.
Review of student university fees and loans. May confirmed the review of university funding and student financing that was briefed to the newspapers over the weekend, along with a freeze in the cap on tuition fees at £9,250 and a higher earnings repayment threshold of £25,000. This is the second policy aimed at attracting young people, after under-30s voted for Labour in their droves at the 8 June election. But, like the housing policy, there is a danger that it does not look like sufficiently bold or decisive action to turn around the Conservatives’ fortunes with younger people.
Party unity. May did not make any direct digs at Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, who has made the last few weeks difficult for the prime minister by undermining her Brexit policy in public. But she did issue a plea for unity and called on her party to “shape up”, saying most people paid little attention to gossip in the corridors of Westminster and just wanted politicians to focus on protecting the jobs of working people. She did make one joke at George Osborne’s expense about not being an “ice maiden”, despite his reported comment about chopping her up to put in his freezer. But otherwise she took a conciliatory tone towards the former chancellor, praising the “northern powerhouse”, and defending the economic record of David Cameron’s coalition. The tone went down well with the conference audience, who gave her multiple standing ovations – sometimes to give her time to recover from repeated coughing fits. The biggest applause of all was for her claim that the “test of a leader is how you respond when tough times come upon you”.
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