C onservative conference is invariably an expensive, time-consuming and increasingly irrelevant lose-lose event for any leader. Delivera polished, sure-footed gathering that leaves delegates in awe of your strategic brilliance and personal performance and itll be forgotten by the weekend. Mess it up with either a lacklustre speech or, more likely, through the ill-discipline of your colleagues, and youll be reminded of it for years.
The last Tory conference to properly change the political weather took place in Blackpool in 2007 . Then, partly through design and partly through the ineptitude of Gordon Brown , momentum switched from a prime minister seemingly in total control to an opposition who, until that point, had been dismissed by many as unelectable. I n Birmingham on Sunday , Theresa May must convince her party and the media that, nine years on, this conference matters just as much.
Theres a strong argument, despite the lack of a credible opposition, that she can deliver this message with conviction. Over four days our new prime minister has an opportunity to lay the road for a potential decade of Conservative rule. That she will do so with a working majority of 16 is just one indicator of how far the Labour Party has fallen.
So what are the key messages and, as importantly, the impressions that she and her team will be hoping to land? The first has already been well flagged. Through her life chances, agenda and industrial strategies, she aims to sweep up the support of hard-grafting Tory families and send a seductive signal to moderate Labour supporters turned off by Jeremy Corbyn s out-of-touch definition of working Britain.
Mr Corbyns re-election as leader means that door, once just ajar, is now hanging off its hinges. The second aim of this conference is more difficult; to put some meat on the Brexit bone without either a) causing internal rebellion or more importantly b), revealing too much of her hand to those on the other side of the negotiating table. Silence would be strategically preferable on this subject but it is entirely unrealistic to expect Mrs May to navigate her way through a conference so soon after the vote to leave the EU without a significant statement on what happens next.
So her range of shots must now develop beyond a re-working of her "Brexit means Brexit"straight bat . The third objective will be to bring a fractured and emotionally damaged party together. S he should do so if not out of a sense of duty towards the organisation she leads, then out of straightforward self-preservation.
For it is internal fractures and not the walking dead opposition that pose the greatest threat to her new government. Despite the brutal culling of the old guard, Mrs May has shown some signs that she understands this. Appointing George Freeman as Chair of the Prime Ministers Policy Board was a sensible move towards bringing a wider circle of MPs into the decision-making tent.
I would expect more of the same at conference. Theresa May will speak on both Sunday and Wednesday. When she does so, she would do well to brush aside the over-emotional memoirs of previous No10 staffers, and pay proper tribute to her predecessor David Cameron.
Its not only the right thing to do the Conservatives would not be in government were it not for his work its also the most effective way of calming the not insignificant number of Tory MPs already muttering into the Commons tea room china. In short, when it comes to unity, the prime minister must now genuinely reach out to all parts of the Conservative family. This cannot be superficial, shop-front stuff 'division is death must be the mantra.
In Birmingham, Mrs May will get her first proper taste of what it is to employ Boris Johnson. The Foreign Secretary is a master of mischief at conference and never fails to annoy his leader with off-piste comments and unscheduled interventions. Hes been doing it for a decade and if Mrs Mays handlers can keep him in check I, for one, will be full of admiration.
B ut with a new look cabinet that contains a number of those for whom the Brexit result was proof that they did, after all, know best, the baby-sitting of Boris is just one personnel battle No10 must win. An easy-to-predict game for the media will be to ask each member of the cabinet to define exactly what they mean by hard and soft Brexit. I suspect therell be a range of different answers given to what is a basic but somewhat fundamental question.
Pinning the cabinet down to a rigid line to take on this simple question will be a tricky but entirely necessary exercise. But Mrs May must also showcase her team and give them some freedom to demonstrate, for the first time in a number of cases, that they have worthwhile ideas to contribute and that they can work together as an effective team. This is even more important given the backdrop of chatter that suggests the party is now controlled by a small cabal of special advisers led by her chiefs-of- staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill.
Timothy, in particular, has been accused of forcing through his own political agenda. I worked with them both and this theory, I would suggest, is well wide of the mark. The final decision on Hinkley Point demonstrates that his alleged puppet-like control of our PM is overstated.
Instead, the pair deserve credit for having done such a swift and professional job in getting Mrs Mays show on the road. J ust 14 weeks ago neither had the first clue that they were bound for No10 and they have risen to the biggest challenge of their professional lives with admirable grit. They deserve the thanks of their party and not the back-biting sarcasm thats too often directed at special advisers.
The creeping narrative of their influence over policy is a symptom of Mrs Mays laudable but flawed communications strategy to date. A strategy that is more Stuka than submarine. Drop the bomb and then disappear from view has, so far, been the broad approach.
I always admired Mrs Mays inclination to keep her distance from the media when we worked together. Unfortunately the role of a modern PM means that she must engage and explain her thinking a little more often than she might like. Im in no doubt that her team know the honeymoon is coming to an end and that the hard slog of their marriage to the media is about to begin.
I would expect to see them use conference to help us get to know Mrs May and her vision for our country a little better. Since they last came together in Manchester 12 months ago the Conservative party has learnt that British politics can change and change swiftly. Labour is a ship holed below the water line, with a captain who, despite his total lack of navigational nous, continues to fight off mutiny.
With no enemy to fire at, Mrs May must make sure the Conservative Party does not now turn the cannons on itself. Telegraph Media Group Limited 2019 Need help? Visit our adblocking instructions page.