Theresa May: Tories must be a party for everyone

Media caption,
The key moments from Theresa May's speech

Theresa May has told the Conservatives they must be the "party for everyone" and said austerity was ending in her party conference speech in Birmingham.

The prime minister said that a decade on from the financial crash, "there are better days ahead", signalling an increase in public spending.

She also defended her under-fire Brexit strategy, saying she was "standing up for Britain".

And she announced new borrowing powers for councils to build more homes.

A cap on the amount councils can borrow to fund new developments "doesn't make sense" and would be scrapped, she said.

Other promises included a "step change" in how cancer is diagnosed with a strategy aimed at increasing early detection rates, plus another freeze in fuel duty.

The prime minister - whose dancing in Kenya made headlines in August - danced on to the stage to the sounds of Abba, and immediately sought to make light of last year's difficult speech.

She joked that if she had a cough this time, it was only because she had been up all night gluing the letters on to the backdrop.

Media caption,
Theresa May opened her conference speech to the music of Abba's Dancing Queen

The Tory conference has been dominated by Brexit, with former foreign secretary Boris Johnson launching a fresh broadside against her Chequers plan - it is known by the country residence where it was agreed in July - for trade with the EU.

And as she prepared to deliver the speech, Conservative MP James Duddridge announced he had submitted a letter to the backbench 1922 Committee calling for a leadership contest.

In her speech there was no mention of "Chequers" specifically - with Mrs May describing her plan as a "free trade deal that provides for frictionless trade in goods".

Defending it, she warned delegates that pursuing "our own visions of the perfect Brexit" could lead to "no Brexit at all".

Media caption,
Theresa May: "A second referendum would be a politicians’ vote”

On austerity, Mrs May said people needed to know "that the end is in sight".

The Tories could not just "clean up a mess" they should "steer a course to a better future", she said.

"Sound finances are essential, but they are not the limit of our ambition. Because you made sacrifices, there are better days ahead."

At next year's Spending Review she said "debt as a share of the economy will continue to go down, support for public services will go up".

"Because, a decade after the financial crash, people need to know that the austerity it led to is over and that their hard work has paid off."

In her speech, Mrs May said the Tories must be "a party not for the few, not even for the many but for everyone who is willing to work hard and do their best".

"Our best days lie ahead of us", she said, adding: "Don't let anyone tell you we don't have what it takes."

She also condemned the personal abuse of politicians, speaking up for Labour's Diane Abbott and calling for an end to "the bitterness and bile which is poisoning our politics".

Media caption,
Let our puissant nation seize Brexit prize - Geoffrey Cox

Mrs May made repeated attacks on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's politics, criticising his opposition to military action and claiming he would raise taxes "higher and higher".

But the Tories needed to "do more than criticise" Labour, she said, vowing to "make markets work in the interests of ordinary people again".

Media caption,
Delegates cheer as Boris Johnson urges them to "chuck Chequers"
Media caption,
What have been the big issues for Tory members?

She said she wanted to help people on low incomes, ruling out any increase in fuel duty in the Budget on 29 October.

BBC experts' verdicts

Theresa May's performance

With the complexities of Brexit, the divisions in her party, the calamity of last year's conference speech, the antics of the former foreign secretary, and of course, her own fragilities, Theresa May has struggled to find her voice - and that's got nothing to do with running out of Strepsils.

Well today she found it, and in the words of one of her cabinet colleagues, not a particularly close ally, said "she found her mojo". From the moment she danced on to the stage (who would have thought we'd ever see that), she looked comfortable in her own skin, actually happy to be there.

It sounds strange, but it is so rare to see her overtly enjoying her job. On so many occasions the public has seen a politician who seems constricted, conflicted, and ill-at-ease. For voters, frankly, if she doesn't look like she is enjoying being prime minister, why should any of us be happy about the fact she's doing it. Read Laura's full blog.

The 'end of austerity'

Philip Hammond is always wary of announcing the "end of austerity", given the fragility of economic growth and the fact that many cuts, such as to benefits, have yet to work through the system.

People are still feeling the pain. He is keener to emphasise that the effort expended bringing the public finances back towards balance - where the government raises in revenues the same at it spends on services - will not be put at risk with some form of "spending splurge".

The PM just made that task harder. Read Kamal's full blog.

The housing proposal

Lifting the cap on how much English local authorities can borrow to build traditional council houses could have a significant impact on the supply of homes for social rent.

Currently, town halls have a housing debt of about £26bn, the value of their existing stock acting as collateral. Doing away with the cap would conservatively allow an extra £10-15bn of borrowing. This money could be used to build an extra 15-20,000 new council homes a year over ten years.

Given that the latest annual figure for completed social rent homes is less than 6,000, this might well quadruple supply in the medium term. Even that increase would not get close to meeting demand for social housing, however.

The extra borrowing will count against the government's balance sheet and may well mean some tough decisions on cuts to budgets elsewhere, although there are arguments that the money could be seen as an investment rather than a subsidy because the new housing would provide a reliable income stream. Since 2012, council housing in England has realised a net rental surplus.

The extra borrowing would be ring-fenced for housing but it is unclear whether all of the new stock would be for social rent. Some shared-ownership homes might be included, for example.

Although the extra borrowing freedom could come into force after early as next year, with planning and land acquisition to be sorted out, it is unlikely the boost to social housing supply will come to pass for some years.

The NHS plan

The pledge to create a new cancer strategy is not surprising - it was already one of the priority areas for the 10-year plan NHS England boss Simon Stevens has been asked to draw up in return for the £20bn funding rise the health service has been promised by 2023.

Her high profile promise was to increase early detection - defined as at stages one and two - from 50% to 75% by 2028.

Progress is already being made towards this. The existing cancer strategy has already made that a priority and in the last four years there has been an 11% improvement, meaning the NHS is already well on course to achieve this target.

Beyond that, there were few details on what it would mean for services so it looks like we will have to wait until the 10-year NHS plan is published, expected to be November, before we know more.

Reaction to the speech

In response, Labour's shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Mrs May's claim on austerity was a "con" unless the chancellor takes immediate action.

He said: "If the prime minister wants to back up her words with action, Philip Hammond should announce immediately that the cuts scheduled for the next four years will be cancelled."

The SNP's Ian Blackford said Mrs May had "danced around the key issues - the disastrous impact of Tory austerity and a Tory hard Brexit".

"There is a massive gulf between her rhetoric and the reality of what is now facing the UK," he added.

Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable said: "As somebody who takes dancing seriously, I was delighted to see Theresa May show that she is developing her new hobby. But she was dancing on the head of a pin, confronted by an audience full of people plotting to oust her."

The Local Government Association, which has been calling for an end to the cap on borrowing for house-building, welcomed the council spending announcement.

"Many of the projects that are already under way could quickly be scaled up," Conservative councillor David Simmonds, the body's deputy chairman, said.

"Councils have been asking for this for a long time and clearly the announcement today is something that means we can get on with the job."

The CBI - which criticised Mrs May's immigration plans on Tuesday - welcomed her call to "back business" and urged MPs to support her Brexit plan to get a deal "over the line".