prime minister’s attempt to switch the conference’s attention to domestic policy ran into early trouble © Getty
Theresa May’s attempt to use the Conservative party conference to showcase a new youth-friendly policy agenda was drowned out on Sunday by a row over Boris Johnson’s leadership ambitions and criticisms of her flagship housing scheme and tuition fee proposals.
Mrs May was accused by former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine of being too “weak” to sack Mr Johnson, while Grant Shapps, former Conservative party chairman, said it was “impossible” for her to remain prime minister until 2022.
She sidestepped the question of whether Mr Johnson was “unsackable”, even though he used an interview in The Sun newspaper to set out “red lines” for Brexit that went beyond the government position.
Speaking at the start of the four-day conference in Manchester, Mrs May insisted that her cabinet was united behind a domestic agenda aimed at reversing the Conservatives’ collapsing support among younger voters.
But the focus at the weekend was on Mr Johnson’s latest intervention on Brexit — and what Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, called “the Tory psychodrama that no one cares about”.
Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, also called out the Tory infighting, saying: “Businesspeople across Britain are growing impatient with division and disorganisation at the heart of the party of government, and have made it very clear that they expect competence and coherence from ministers as we move into a critical period for the economy.”
Mrs May, who has said she wants to lead the Conservatives into the next general election in 2022, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme on Sunday that the foreign secretary was “absolutely behind” the plan for Brexit she set out in Florence last month.
She also gave her fullest apology yet for the party’s general election fiasco, saying: “I called the election, I led the campaign and I am responsible and I accept my responsibility and I am sorry that the result was not what we wanted.”
But the prime minister’s attempt to switch the conference’s attention to domestic policy ran into early trouble, as some Tories questioned her plan to put a further £10bn into the Help to Buy scheme, which provides equity loans for people buying newly built homes.
Steve Norris, former Tory London mayoral candidate, called the move a “monumental mistake”, amid concerns it primarily addressed demand rather than the chronic under-supply of homes.
One minister said: “When we started the scheme there was a problem with lack of demand, but that’s no longer the case. Really we should be focusing on supply instead.”
Mrs May’s other headline policy package aimed at young voters — a freeze on tuition fees at £9,250, and an increase from £21,000 to £25,000 in the income threshold at which student loans start to be repaid — was criticised for being too timid.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted: “You tripled tuition fees and just increased them to £9,250 a year. Promising not to raise them again is meaningless.”
Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat leader, said the policy package was a “panicky bribe”.
University vice-chancellors, who had feared a reduction in annual fees to £7,500, were privately relieved. “This is a policy designed to look like something big which actually means relatively little,” said one vice-chancellor.