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article imageFive things to watch at the UK Conservative conference

By Katherine Haddon (AFP)     Sep 30, 2016 in Politics

As Britain's ruling Conservative party prepares to hold its annual party conference from Sunday, here are five key points to watch out for.

- Brexit hints -

Prime Minister Theresa May has played her cards close to her chest over how Britain will leave the European Union after June's referendum vote.

Short of insisting that "Brexit means Brexit", we do not know whether she wants a "hard" Brexit -- quickly severing all ties with EU institutions -- or a "soft" one, in which access to the European single market could be retained.

Nor do we know when she plans to trigger Article 50, the formal process which would start two years of Brexit talks.

Foreign minister Boris Johnson has said this will be early next year, though Downing Street has slapped down those comments.

Brexit will be top of the agenda at the conference in Birmingham, central England, and delegates and media will be hanging on any hints about what form it will take.

- Boris blunders -

Johnson, the former mayor of London, is known for going off script but will he be able to stay on message at his first conference in a big central government job?

He and the other two ministers central to leaving the EU -- Brexit minister David Davis and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox -- all favour a hard "Brexit" and have landed in hot water recently for their outspoken comments on this.

As well as Johnson's comments about triggering Article 50, Downing Street distanced itself from comments by Davis this month that Britain was unlikely to stay in the single market after Brexit negotiations.

Fox, meanwhile, was strongly criticised for saying that British business leaders were "lazy", "fat" and would rather play golf than build exports.

- May's speech -

May, who took over as premier in July after David Cameron stepped down following the Brexit referendum, will be making her first speech as leader and prime minister to a Conservative party conference.

Many grassroots activists had backed hardliner Andrea Leadsom over May in the race to succeed Cameron.

They will now be looking for reassurance that May will deliver on traditional rightwing Conservative values as well as a "hard" Brexit.

May only came to power thanks to the support of her party's MPs and her rivals backing out in an internal leadership contest triggered by Cameron's resignation.

She has already scored points with many party activists by saying she will allow the creation of new academically selective state schools, known as grammar schools.

But will she pull any more rabbits out of the hat to keep the party faithful on side?

- General election -

Despite May's insistence that she will not call a snap general election to boost her slender parliamentary majority, some analysts and Westminster insiders believe this could be on the cards.

Divisions in the main opposition Labour party mean the Conservatives are in a strong position to boost their current standing, making it easier for them to push through controversial legislation.

"If Theresa May does what any normal politician would do in her position, she will engineer a contest in the spring or early summer of next year," Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary, University of London, said this month.

This would allow her to boost her majority "before the compromises she's going to have to make with Brussels become overly obvious", before a potential economic slowdown and while divisive leftwinger Jeremy Corbyn is still Labour leader, Bale said.

- Will Cameron show? -

This time last year, David Cameron was the star of the party conference, four months after leading the Conservatives to a surprise clear general election win which led to June's EU referendum.

This year, it is unclear whether he will even show up, let alone speak.

Since May took office, she has signalled a clear break with Cameron's policies.

There were even reports that his surprise decision this month to resign his backbench Commons seat was linked to his opposition to grammar schools, which she backs.

"Theresa May and her government represent conservative Conservatism. David Cameron and (his finance minister George) Osborne were modern, social liberals," said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics.

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