THE Prime Minister has pledged to steer Britain through a “pivotal moment” in its in history and into “better days ahead”, in an optimistic speech that prioritised the NHS, families, and diversity, before mentioning Brexit.
Mrs May addressed the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham on the final day, on Wednesday. She danced to the podium to the song “Dancing Queen” by Abba, and began by apologising, with a croak in her throat, if she coughed during the speech, after almost completely losing her voice during last year’s speech (News, 6 October 2017).
At the start of her speech, she acknowledged the centenary of the First World War this year: “At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them. We do remember them.” Remarking on the uniting of Europe after the war, she said: “The lesson of that remarkable generation is clear: if we come together, there is nothing that we cannot achieve. Our future is in our hands.”
In the first of several pointed attacks on “the Jeremy Corbyn labour party” and its ongoing crisis over anti-Semitism, she said: “What has befallen Labour is a national tragedy.” Mr Corbyn’s predecessors had “at least” valued British values and supported the national interest. She pledged to “cut through the poison and bile” that infected and polarised politics.
“We need to be a party for the whole country, because people who have not voted for our party in the past are appalled by what Jeremy Corbyn has done to Labour. They want to support a party that is decent, moderate, and patriotic; one that puts the national issues they care about, and is comfortable with modern Britain in all its diversity.
“We must show the country that we are that party: one that shows the best of our inheritance, but is not afraid of change . . . a party that believes your success in life should not be defined by who you love, your faith, the colour of your skin, who your parents were, or where you were raised, but by your talent and hard work.”
This could be achieved by upholding security, freedom, and opportunity, she said — principles that were embodied in the “precious” NHS. “This year we gave the NHS a 70th-birthday present to be proud of: the biggest cash boost in its history,” she said: “an extra £394 million every single week.”
Mrs May spoke with emotion about her goddaughter, who had died of cancer, before announcing a new cancer strategy based on early diagnosis. “Our NHS saves countless lives every day: one of my responsibilities is to secure it for the future. That is never more true than when our national security is threatened.”
She spoke of the air-strikes on the Assad regime, and the expulsion of Russian diplomats after the Salisbury poisoning, which she said had been accepted by all MPs except Mr Corbyn. “We must keep our defences strong to keep our country safe.”
Coming to Brexit after 30 minutes of her hour-long speech, she said that, to protect the national interest, she must honour those who voted Leave in the referendum. “I will not let them down.” She must also seek a good trading and security relationship with the UK’s “close friends and allies” in Europe, she said. “No one wants a good deal more than me: but that has never meant a deal at any cost.”
Mrs May outlined the “compromise” of the Chequers proposal, which, she said, promised control of the NHS, finances, security, and immigration. “The free movement of people will end once and for all. . . Throughout our history, migrants have made a huge contribution to our country and will continue to do so in the future. . . It [the Chequers proposal] keeps faith with the British people; it is in the national interest.”
The Labour party was not acting in the national interest but “their own political interest”, she said. She rejected calls for a people’s vote. “We had a people’s vote and the people voted to leave. A second referendum would be a politicians’ vote. Think what it would do to faith in our democracy.”
The toughest phase of the negotiations was still to come, she warned. “If we stick together and hold our nerve, I know we can get the best deal for Britain. . . Together, we will build a future for the whole of the UK.”
Aaron Chown/PAMrs May after delivering her speech to the Conservative Party Conference on Wednesday
Mrs May defended free markets and thanked businesses, large and small, for creating jobs. “Britain under my conservative government is open for business,” she said. She criticised again Labour policies including the nationalisation of the railways, which she said would cost the tax payer one trillion pounds. “After all the sacrifices we have made, Labour would take us back to square one.”
She promised to fix the problems with the rail service — and an “auto-compensation” system for delays. On housing, she announced a rise in stamp duty for property investors who did not live in the UK, the funds of which would go to help tackle rough sleeping. More homes needed to be built to solve the housing crisis, she said. She announced that the scrapping of the cap on how much councils could borrow against their housing-revenue account assets to fund new developments.
Mrs May also confirmed that fuel duty would be frozen to help put “money in the pockets of hard-working people”. National debt had fallen, she said, but acknowledged that this had cost public- sector employees and families: “Fixing our finances was necessary. There must be no return to the uncontrolled borrowing of the past. . . Because you made sacrifices, there are better days ahead.”
She pledged to set out a new approach after a Brexit deal to support public services. “A decade after the financial crash, people need to know that austerity is over and their hard work has paid off.”
The conference began on Sunday with a service in St Luke’s, Gas Street. It was organised by the Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF), who also held several fringe events, including its first interfaith reception.
Its director, Gareth Wallace, said: “The biggest focus of the year is the party conference.”
The Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urquhart, who was at the conference, said on Wednesday that the fringe events emphasised “the importance of the freedom of religion and belief that we enjoy and which the Government is committed to promote across the world.
“Using this opportunity, Christians can offer solutions and actions for the common good that cannot be supplied by Government alone. The Prime Minister has been speaking this week about opportunity for achieving ‘a better life’. People who base their lives on lived faith will pray for politicians and take responsibility beyond party politics for articulating and practising policies, whether on skills, housing, savings, or care for the elderly, that bring hope, compassion, and justice to all.”
Speaking before the church service on Sunday, Mrs May said: “I want to express my thanks to all those who contribute so much to our country through their work in local churches and Christian organisations.
“Across the UK, people motivated by their Christian faith are giving up their time to serve their communities, to support vulnerable people, and to find solutions to some of society’s most intractable challenges. Nothing demonstrates that better than Home for Good’s inspiring work to provide loving homes to children through fostering and adoption.”
The congregation was addressed by the founder of the fostering and adoption charity Home for Good, Dr Krish Kandiah, who is an adoptive father and foster carer. He urged attendees to consider providing a foster or adoptive home.
“A friend who was unable to live with his family said the moment he knew that he was loved and trusted by the family caring for him, was when they gave him a front door key to their home.
“That little key was a poignant picture of welcome and acceptance. The need for more foster and adoptive homes is felt right across our country. So today we have given out 298 keys and asked politicians, civic leaders and members of churches to take a key and add it to their key chain as an ever-present reminder to offer welcome and hospitality to children in need.”
The numbers of children entering the care system increased by three per cent last year to more than 72,000. But the number of children waiting for adoption in England currently outweighs the number of families waiting by almost three to one, the charity says: 1115 children to 412 families.
Christian fringe events at the conference included an interfaith reception held on Sunday in partnership with the Conservative Muslim Forum — a first for the Conference. Mr Wallace said: “We had MPs David Lidington and James Brokenshire: the first time I have ever been able to get two cabinet ministers in the room at conference, so that was exciting.”
The partnerships executive of the Christian broadcasters SAT-7, Dave Mann, said of the reception that the “strong recognition” from the Prime Minister and MPs of the work of Christians and other faiths in the community was encouraging.
SAT-7 and the CCF also co-hosted a breakfast on the final morning of the conference on Wednesday, where they were joined by the Minister of State for the Middle East, Alistair Burt.
Mr Mann said: “Sadly, too many countries are failing to respect the universal rights of people to choose and practise the faith of their choice, even when those communities have been intrinsic to the region for many hundreds of years. SAT-7 welcomes the interest of politicians from across the spectrum in addressing issues like religious persecution.”
Mr Wallace said: “CCF doesn’t take policy positions; we don’t contradict the party or that would be a bit of a scoop. But obviously Christians and Christian MPs may hold particular issues close to their heart. Our role in being inside party headquarters is to be a listening ear.
“We are offering a bridge for Christian churches and charities to make representation to explain why they are concerned about policy areas and then to invite MPs and the Government to respond.”
A policy forum was held in Birmingham City Church in partnership with the international charity World Vision, on Monday. It was attended by the Minister of State for Africa, Harriett Baldwin, and the private secretary to the department for International Development, Michael Tomlinson.
A prayer breakfast discussing prisons and international development was also held on Monday, in partnership with the Christian charity Langley House Trust, which offers community housing support and rehabilitation and advice to people in prison.
The chief executive of the Trust, Tracy Wild, said afterwards: “It was a real privilege to discuss the important issues related to the successful rehabilitation of prisoners on release, alongside Rory Stewart (Minister for Prisons) and Lord Farmer.”
Lord Farmer said in his speech: “Why do so many politicians ignore the need to strengthen families? Undoubtedly there are concerns about glasshouses, nannying, and fear of appearing judgemental. There is also sheer blindness. It is now so common for children to experience family breakdown that adults often minimise how hard they find it.
“We as Conservatives must not buck our responsibility. We must make the difficult arguments for preventing family breakdown where possible.”
The chief executive of the foodbank charity the Trussell Trust, Emma Revie, hosted another prayer breakfast on Tuesday, alongside the Salvation Army, to explore the issue of loneliness.
Mr Wallace said on Tuesday: “I have also met with Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, and the United Reform Church, who attend the conference every year.”
He was “excited” to be taking Church leaders to hear Mrs May’s speech the next day, he said: “It was more exciting than I had hope for last year — she spoke at 18 fringe events beforehand, which is probably one of the reasons she lost her voice. We have cheekily put in an extra prayer breakfast on the final morning; we have had good attendance to our events.”
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