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Brexit high on agenda at Tory party conference

Theresa May is keen to flesh out her social policy agenda at the Tory party conference - but the Europe question is far from settled. Samira Shackle reports from London.

Less than three months after the vote for Brexit propelled Theresa May into the premiership, she will host her first Conservative conference as leader. The annual gathering of MPs and party faithful will take place in Birmingham from Sunday until Wednesday.

The mood will likely be jubilant: the Conservatives have a clear lead in the polls and are seeking to consolidate their power. But the conference will not be totally free of internal tension. Although the European referendum was supposed to settle the long-running feud over Europe within Tory ranks, fault lines remain. May has not clarified what she wants in the divorce from Europe, although she on Sunday at least took the step of announcing that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty - the article governing a country's exit from the EU - will be triggered at the end of March 2017.  Some high-profile MPs, such as Ken Clarke and George Osborne, are advocating caution, while Brexiteers such as David Davis and Boris Johnson have indicated they want a hard break.

"The question of Europe has been nominally resolved, but there are issues bubbling away in the background about how the Conservatives see Brexit proceeding," Matthew Cole, lecturer in history at Birmingham University, told DW. "Do they want to be in the single market? Are they prepared to accept free movement?"

With so much still up in the air, it is unlikely the Conservative conference will offer much in the way of solid information on the next steps toward Brexit.

"My prediction is we're not going to learn a huge amount about what's going to happen, even though the whole first day is dedicated to talking about Brexit," says Oliver Patel, research associate at the European Institute at University College London. "They'll try to say the right things without really saying anything," he told DW.

New agenda

Since taking office, May has made a clear break with her predecessor David Cameron's rule. She pushed out of government nearly all ministers who were closest to Cameron, watered down the austerity program that Cameron and Osborne were committed to, and abandoned aspects of his modernizing agenda.

Großbritannien Innenministerin Theresa May & Premierminister David Cameron (picture-alliance/empics/N. Ansell)

Theresa May has come under fire from her party for rolling back parts of her predecessor's agenda

The most prominent example of this is her plan to bring back grammar schools, which select children based on their academic ability. This has long been a flashpoint for Tory activists. "Are MPs happy with the fairly brutal abandonment of the Cameron agenda? This move to set up grammar schools for Tories represents a symbolic point of arguing and positioning," says Cole. "All people in the Tory party will hope it doesn't become a major point of contention."

Although Labour's internal chaos has meant that the Conservatives have been able to operate largely unopposed in recent months, May will be aware that her party has a parliamentary majority of just 12 seats, making continued party unity essential.

Moving forward

While tacking to the right on various policy issues, May's language has at times sounded almost left-wing. The speech she gave upon becoming prime minister emphasized social mobility. "Her rhetoric has been around meritocracy and this notion of the country working for everyone," says Patel. "Maybe she is capitalizing on Labour's disarray and trying to appeal to people who might normally vote for the opposition."

May is keen to put her stamp on her time in power. "A social policy agenda is what she's going to want to try and flesh out, this earnestness to deal with social inequality and providing greater opportunity for everyone," says Cole.

However, with the nature of Britain's break from the European Union still hanging in the balance, it seems that the question of Europe will continue to dominate Conservative politics for this conference, and beyond.

 

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