May relegated to Conference sidelines as successors vie for control
It was never going to be an easy conference for Theresa May to navigate, when the newspapers have been full of rumors of her imminent political demise, the fact that Number 10 was reduced to briefing about a 'Festival of Brexit' in 2022 does reveal how little the Conservative leadership actually has to offer after two years talking about little else.
Indeed, it's the Prime Minister's possible successors that are the ones making waves this year, even if it's only by slagging one another off.
Boris Johnson again hitched his leadership ambitions onto a "SuperCanada" Brexit strategy, complaining that the Chequers agreement would "cheat" the electorate, in a rehash of his Daily Telegraph column last week, but didn't quite go so far as to call for May's head for "forfeiting control.
Although Johnson generated the most headlines for his transparent leadership maneuverings, it's been two former Remainers, Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid that have become viewed by those within the Tory hierarchy as the best placed to replace May before the next election (even as the party members still tend to back Johnson for the role).
Hunt's speech yesterday contained a lot of red-meat for the Tory base, comparing the EU to the Soviet Union, provoking outrage from EU diplomats and former British ambassadors and foreign office officials. Despite that, it's telling that Hunt hasn't made the sort of interventions on the direction of the government's Brexit policy that his predecessor did frequently in Tory-aligned newspapers, and his comments are probably more to do with shoring up his position among skeptical pro-Brexit MPs who still remember the Foreign Secretary's previously support for a second referendum after the vote in 2016.
Meanwhile on economic policy, the government has been reduced to either making trite criticisms of Labour's platform (with Chancellor Philip Hammond sneering at the idea of re-nationalising Britain's railways, a policy backed by the majority of the public), or making policy pledges which, at best, are a watered down alternative to what Jeremy Corbyn is offering voters.
The fundamental problem for the Conservatives however, is still that they've wedded themselves to continuing austerity economics, at a time where they're also about to deliver a massive hit to the public finances through their Brexit plans (assuming the EU even accepts the Chequers deal, an increasingly far-fetched proposition). Hammond's complaint that those against the government's current spending plans are "populists and demagogues" hardly leaves much room for the Tories to change tack either.
In the real world, arguing that there's no spare money for education, housing or the emergency services while think-tanks warn of a bill of £500m a week from for the Tory Brexit seems unlikely to convince many.