Media coverage of the recent Conservative Party Conference seemed to focus largely not on specific policy details, but instead on the wider issues surrounding the party. As always, the spectre of Boris Johnson loomed ominously over the Prime Minister, whose own perceived lack of personality was demonstrated perfectly with her robotic dance moves.
May’s attempt to bring some humour to the party conference would perhaps be more admirable if it were to come from a leader with a shred of self-awareness, or from someone to whom humour comes naturally. Yet instead there was a whiff of desperation about the Prime Minister -she cannot truly have believed that one mere attempt to act naturally could repair her damaged reputation as an ailing leader who can’t connect with the general public.
The focus on these external side issues, always of course dominated by Brexit, perhaps demonstrated aptly the fact that the Conservatives have become a party without actual, long-term policies. Now, they appear to have been subsumed fully by Brexit, which is often used to represent all things to all men, despite in reality throwing up a series of contradictory and insoluble problems for the Prime Minister.
For all the criticism they often received when in government, the duo of David Cameron and George Osborne often had a clear vision of what they wanted to do while in government – the concerted and prolonged emphasis on implementing austerity to reduce the deficit was the best example of this. Nevertheless, years later, the deficit remains, Osborne’s goal of achieving a surplus has not been realised, and any Conservative Party claims as to being the party of fiscal responsibility appear laughable in the light of Brexit and all the uncertainty that has emerged since then.
Quite where the government now stands on austerity appears uncertain. Theresa May appeared to signal its end during the party conference, yet similar signals came from her back when she became Prime Minister in 2016. If the government do intend to bring an end to austerity without having eliminated the deficit, it may beg one major question for many voters: what was the point?
Indeed, any commitment from May to bring austerity to an end is also undermined by the fact that her party contains plenty of MP’s who are firm and absolute believers in the free-market, individuals who are sceptical about the idea of increasing public spending. With May’s own position as Prime Minister perpetually uncertain, she will continue to rely on party figures from across the political spectrum on various issues, and if she does not survive then there is always the possibility that her replacement will instead seek to further reduce public spending due to their own ideological leanings.
As a result, it often feels like in-depth economic discussion has been ignored by the current government, with interminable drivel surrounding Brexit and its implementation reigning supreme. Infamous phrases such as ‘the will of the people’ and ‘Brexit means Brexit’ are, after all, altogether less detail-orientated than a plan to reduce the deficit or increase public spending. When questioned on policy details, MP’s are often able to defer to Brexit instead, and anyone who disagrees with their vision can be cast as someone undermining the UK’s position.
On immigration, the Conservatives find themselves in a similar ideological quandary. From the days of Cameron’s initial premiership, they have long been committed to substantially cutting net migration numbers. Brexit appeared to offer them the perfect opportunity as a party to rectify their failure in this arena, allowing them to impose greater controls on the number of EU migrants coming to Britain each year. Yet the crisis in regards to how Brexit should impact the Irish border has demonstrated that this is not particularly simple, and that a hard Brexit would cause previously unseen complications if a border were to be implemented.
In this respect, the government find themselves caught between their ideological pursuit of tackling immigration, and adopting a sensible approach to the problem of Northern Ireland which ensures the safety of those affected by possible changes remains paramount.
Despite repeated claims that a solution will be reached, the government appear to be aware that the issue is not as simple as they would like to make it appear, and if an ideal resolution cannot be found then their commitment to leaving the single market may be in jeopardy. Again, to counter this they repeatedly resort to vague buzzwords to paint Brexit in a positive light - the party slogan of ‘opportunity’ during the week perhaps best exemplifying that.
In 2016, equally vague buzzwords ‘security’ and ‘stability’ sat alongside ‘opportunity’. Since then the former two have been abandoned, the Conservative perhaps showing a rare modicum of self-awareness. Only the vague notion of hope remains, which is perhaps appropriate for a political party who appear to now be completely devoid of any meaningful policy direction that doesn’t relate to Brexit.