An old CEO of mine used to repeat each year, with a tedious sense of dread: “I hate going to the party conferences. But I always come back feeling closer to the politics.”
And he was right: party conferences – though exhausting, are always revealing. Through political circus, we catch glimpses of the internal atmosphere of each of party. We get a sense of their policy direction for the year ahead, and – perhaps most intriguingly – we can gleam a sense of who’s on their way in, and who’s packing their bags.
This year, the attention was on the Conservatives. For most political commentators, the party of Government’s annual conference needed to answer two questions – can Theresa May deliver Brexit? And who will succeed her?
Crippled by poor poll ratings, a perceived poor leadership on Brexit, and general criticism of her leadership – despite my colleague Stuart Macdonald’s calls for the housing sector to get behind the PM, few are expecting her to survive much longer, and certainly not until the next election.
Big names in her party used conference to test the waters with their leadership bids. Some subtly, some less so.
Jeremy Hunt’s conference speech attempted to create a platform for the party to consider his leadership potential. By invoking the memory of Churchill and Thatcher, he hoped to rally the Brexiteers behind him, and position himself as a strong, powerful leader. Sadly for Hunt, lazy references comparing the EU to the Soviet Union stopped that ambition in its tracks.
In the other corner, enter Michael Gove. Still scarred from his 2016 leadership battle, which saw him metaphorically knife Boris in the back, Gove’s cautious approach has seen him attempt to – sensibly – rebuild his reputation and profile amongst the party faithful and wider public. His Daily Mail interview, timed perfectly to land before conference, was a clear attempt to rebuild the damage his last campaign caused him – building his narrative, telling his life story, and positioning himself away from “the privileged right” of the party.
As Hillary Clinton knows – and referenced in her 2016 election defeat – the best leaders sell their own vision for the future by connecting them to their own history (think Obama battling poverty through his work in Chicago, Thatcher’s belief in social mobility and being a daughter of a greengrocer). For Gove, connecting on this human level is – quite possibly – a stroke of genius.
But the prize for the least useful leadership challenge attempt? Boris Johnson. Running through fields of weeds in an attempt to mock Theresa May, is an unfortunate analogy.
Whilst we know some of the big contenders lining up for May’s job, let’s remember that successors are often the ones you least expect. With the exception of Gordon Brown, no leader of either Labour of Conservative Party has been a clear run for leadership in recent history.
Nobody expected Cameron to trump David Davis in the 2005 Conservative leadership battle any more than people expected the younger Miliband to trump his older brother in Labour’s 2010 election contest. And let’s not forget that Jeremy Corbyn only entered Labour’s 2015 leadership battle in order to provide “balanced debate” within the party, and when the contest was announced the battle was perceived to be between Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham.
So, if like me, you’re thinking May’s on her way out, and “who’s next?” Perhaps the answer lies in what you can’t see, not what you think you can.