Giles Kenningham: Political mines await the PM at Tory conference

Written by Giles Kenningham on 28 September 2017 in Opinion

Theresa May will have to tread carefully in a number of areas.

My old boss Eric Pickles used to say that no one ever remembered successful conferences. And he was right. To some extent you have everything to lose and not a lot to gain.

Events are magnified in a very confined artificial environment. The backdrop this year is littered with political mines and flashpoints at every turn.



First off Theresa May will have the headache of how to navigate her way through the serialisation of two political books dissecting what went wrong during June's election fiasco in the Sunday papers.

These promise to have intimate insider details that could make very uncomfortable reading and set the tone for a very difficult few days . She will need to show a light touch when she inevitably gets hit by a deluge of questions on the election fallout during her Andrew Marr interview on Sunday. Number Ten may well need to have a couple of stories in their back pocket to drop out on Sunday morning to change the conversation. 


Pickles review

Eric Pickles' party review into the election is published on the opening day of conference. Whilst I understand it will focus on recommendations for the future and less on a lengthy post-mortem into what went wrong she won’t want it dominating the agenda.

It’s unavoidable and inevitable that it will refocus the narrative on the past and not the future where May wants people to be looking. And It will inevitably spark questions about her leadership and the fact she’s not an election winner.


Saying Sorry

It's already been briefed that the PM will apologise for throwing away a majority to what could be a very grumpy Tory party faithful. The problem with this now being in the public domain is that the media will be pouring over every word and analysing the nature of the apology.

Will it be enough or will it be too qualified? And if she doesn't say sorry at all, people will want to know why.

And crucially when does she do it? Logically you would think she does it on the Sunday. Get all the bad news out the way.



At the moment it seems like May’s biggest weakness is her biggest strength - no one wants her job. However she will need to pull off a blockbuster conference speech that offers a picture for the future that's not just about Brexit.

She has two audiences - the party faithful who will want to go away energised with a spring in their step and the public watching in their living rooms at home.  She  will need to show humility and steel. Whilst the PM has become a more accomplished speaker over the few months the bar is always sky high for conference speeches. And she will need something special to rid get of the Maybot tag.



Cabinet Unity

From a PR perspective  Manchester is a nightmare location - the huge concourse between the conference hotel and hall is perfect for roaming TV camera crews to doorstep politicians and catch them off guard.

With all the cabinet manouvering playing out in the media over the past few weeks, journalists will be looking to seize on any unguarded off message comment no matter how small.

Will Boris behave himself? You can guarantee he will have a scrum of journalists following his every move. There’s a real danger he steals the show and the conference becomes all about him. Will a cabinet which is split on key issues manage to put on a united front for a few days?


And finally

it's worth remembering that even if Theresa May does gets through the four days unscathed, her work is not yet done. Iain Duncan Smith and Thatcher survived conferences only to both be ousted a few weeks later.




Giles Kenningham is a former Number Ten special adviser and founder of the PR and public affairs consultancy Trafalgar Strategy 



Picture credit: PA Images


Share this page