They were selling T shirts with the slogan “the lady’s not for turning” in Birmingham this week. For the first time in a quarter of a century the Conservative conference was able to acclaim a determined woman leader. Margaret Thatcher made her defiant declaration in the middle of her monetarist revolution that laid waste to the North’s industrial base in the early 1980s. She was determined to reduce the role of the state, there was no such thing as society.
This week in Birmingham Theresa May reversed that thinking by signalling that her government saw a very definite role for the state. Along with an attack on the greed and unaccountability of some business practices, this was a speech of great significance. The Tories are occupying the middle ground vacated by vacillating moderate Labour MPs, a currently weak Liberal Democrat Party and UKIP who have given new meaning to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Her keynote speech success on Wednesday followed a deft piece of political management three days before. When I arrived in Birmingham there was an uneasy atmosphere with Brexiteer Ultras poised to pounce on any backsliding over Brexit. Mrs May’s promise to trigger the EU withdrawal process by next March and her announcement of the Great Repeal Bill to scrap the 1972 European Communities Act ensured that the rest of the conference ran smoothly.
NORTHERN POWERHOUSE: IT’S UP TO US.
I received many assurances in Birmingham that the Northern Powerhouse was still a concept the new government embraced despite the total absence from the conference of its architect George Osborne and the resignation of Lord O’Neill of Gatley.
However one was struck by ministers vigorous support for the Midlands Engine and the constant evocation of the memory of Joseph Chamberlain, the nineteenth century statesman who was central to Birmingham great municipal development. One has a sense that Birmingham rather than Manchester will be the main focus of attention for the time being. This is because the Tories believe their candidate for elected mayor of the West Midlands, the former John Lewis boss Andy Street, has a real chance of victory. His Labour opponent Sion Simon meanwhile has had to deny he favours a merger of West Midlands football teams in order to win the Premiership.
ANSTEE: MAN OF EXPERIENCE.
The Tories chances of winning the position of elected mayor in Greater Manchester look far more difficult. This didn’t deter Sean Anstee, the leader of Trafford Council for throwing his hat in the ring when nominations opened this week. Cllr Anstee took the opportunity of addressing conference fringe events in Birmingham to stress that he has the advantage over Labour’s hot favourite, Andy Burnham, in local government experience. Anstee’s Conservative support for the Combined Authority deal was also crucial. xx