Author Mark Richards

Last week it was the Labour Conference; this week it is the Conservative Conference. For now, both the party leaders are centre-stage. How much do we know about them? And how long will they last?

I am writing this article on the eve of the Conservative Conference in Manchester. Theresa May will try and hold her party together while the sharks – alright, Boris is an unlikely looking shark – circle, scenting blood.

Meanwhile, the curtain has come down on last week’s Labour Conference – a triumph for Jeremy Corbyn and a conference which saw the ‘government in waiting’ outline a clear vision for a stronger, fairer Britain, meeting the needs of the many, not the few. Or – depending on your viewpoint – it was a meeting of incompetents and economic illiterates that would bankrupt the country within three months of taking office.

The two party leaders are central to the current political debate and integral to their parties’ success – or lack of it. Let us take a brief look at their backgrounds.

By UK Home Office [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Vicar’s Daughter

Theresa Mary Brasier was born on October 1st, 1956 – so she arrived at the Conservative Conference on her 61st birthday. The daughter of a vicar, she grew up in Oxfordshire and was educated largely in the state sector, albeit with a short stint at an independent Catholic girls’ school. She has a 2nd class degree in Geography from Oxford University and worked for the Bank of England between 1977 and 1983. She married Philip May, whom she met at Oxford, in 1980. From 1985 to 1997 she was a senior adviser on international affairs for the Association of Payment Clearing Services. She became MP for Maidenhead in 1997 and leader of the Conservative Party – and hence Prime Minister – following David Cameron’s resignation in 2016.


By Rwendland (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The junior reporter

Jeremy Corbyn is 68 – he was born in Chippenham and grew up in Wiltshire and Shropshire. His parents – a maths teacher and an electrical engineer – were both peace campaigners who had met at a meeting about the Spanish Civil War. He was active in the Young Socialists and the League Against Cruel Sports from an early age and, having achieved two A-levels at grade E, left school at 18 to briefly work as a junior reporter on the Newport and Market Drayton Advertiser. By the age of 22, he was working as an official for the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers and became MP for Islington in 1983 and leader of the Labour Party (having famously been added to the ballot at the last minute) in September 2015.

This year’s General Election

When Theresa May called the General Election last year it initially looked like more of a coronation than an election with a Conservative majority of around 100 seats widely predicted. But the more people saw of Theresa May the less they liked her – “Don’t turn it into a personality contest if you haven’t got one,” as Nigel Farage famously said – while Corbyn’s populist appeal, especially with young people, grew and grew. In the event, Theresa May hung on to power only thanks to a deal with Ulster’s Democratic Unionists. There were lurid stories in the press over the weekend of Theresa May in tears after the Election, lying to the Queen about the deal with the Ulster Unionists and being on the edge of a nervous breakdown after the last election. No wonder the sharks are circling…

What about economics?

How do the economic policies of the two leaders and their parties compare? Labour’s policy is to turn the clock back to 1945 or – again depending on your point of view – to repeat the pledge of the Attlee Government to ‘rebuild the nation from the debris of the bomb sites.’ Specific economic policies include the re-nationalisation of rail, water, electricity and the Royal Mail, as well as bringing a swathe of PFI (Private Finance Initiative) contracts “back in-house.” No-one seems to have any idea how much this would cost and John McDonnell, Labour Shadow Chancellor, seemed quite happy to admit that he was already ‘war-gaming’ a run on the pound should Labour be elected, a move Jeremy Corby seems comfortable with.

What is Theresa May planning for the Conservative Conference? She seems prepared to acknowledge that she has lost the youth vote, with many university towns swinging sharply to the left at the last election. She now plans to woo them back by increasing the threshold at which you start to make student loan repayments to £25,000 and pumping an extra £10bn into the ‘Help to Buy’ scheme. As the parent of two children with significant student loan debt, I do not want to see the threshold for student loans increased: I want to see the rules changed so they start to reduce their debt. And more money for Help-to-Buy: that looks like increasing demand without increasing supply – surely that will only lead to price rises, making it more difficult for young people to buy houses?

In fact, having spent virtually all the election campaign deriding Labour’s ‘magic money tree’ Theresa May seems to have, well, magically found one at the bottom of her garden. Student loans, Help to Buy, lifting the public sector pay cap, £1bn to keep the Democratic Unionists onside…

Will these two leaders fight the next election?

Conservative Conference

Photo by Andrew Parsons

This week’s Conservative conference has been billed as Theresa vs. Boris – and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is indeed the favourite to succeed her among Tory activists. The bookmakers take a slightly different view, with David Davis as their favourite – and they are convinced that Theresa May will be long gone and working on her memoirs by the time of the next General Election.

Conversely, the bookmakers expect Corbyn to lead Labour at the next election, despite the fact that he will be over 70 by then. In the short term, the favourite to replace him is Emily Thornberry – of white van man fame.

My own view? I suspect that we have already seen the ‘speech of the conference’ from Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson: she is not yet an MP, but there is plenty of time for a safe seat to be found before 2020 and a Davidson vs. Corbyn election would see a clear generational divide. In her speech, Ruth Davidson cheerfully made jokes against herself and referenced the White Stripes. Hopefully, Theresa May was in the conference hall taking notes, but you do suspect our leader thinks ‘white stripes’ are a detail on her new handbag…