The Conservative Party Conference poses a serious threat to the Conservative Party. It risks demonstrating the party’s unpopularity, its deepening internal factions and leaves it vulnerable to a media onslaught. On the other hand, it provides a unique opportunity for the party and the Prime Minister to carve out his niche and seize the agenda. Having been in power for less than a year, this is Sunak’s first party conference as leader and it’s a major moment for him to strengthen the party, rally support and set out his vision for the country beyond the next general election.
Since taking over as leader, Sunak has faced a myriad of challenges. He has had to grapple with economic turmoil, a crisis in popularity stemming from his predecessor, and numerous external crises, such as the war in Ukraine and the recent school RAAC crisis. This has meant he has constantly been on the back foot and has failed to grip the narrative and set out a positive agenda.
The closest he got to achieving this was when he delivered his five priorities speech where he set out his pledges to:
- halve inflation,
- get the economy growing,
- reduce national debt,
- cut NHS waiting lists, and
- pass new laws to stop the boats.
However, whilst this speech did dominate media headlines, its ambiguity left Sunak vulnerable, and its limited ambition revealed his detail-orientated problem-solving leadership style. Given the context in which he came to power, – it is understandable that his primary objective has been to steady the ship and steer it towards calmer waters, however, with only a year at most until he must face the electorate – steadying the ship will not be enough to bridge the substantial deficit in the polls where the party is lagging behind by 15-20 points.
Since this speech in January, he has given himself and his team a little bit of time to build a platform from which he must now launch a formidable campaign.
It is exactly for this reason that this conference provides such a pivotal opportunity for Sunak to save himself and his party from what currently looks like an inevitable defeat. When Sunak takes to the stage on Wednesday, he must avoid the temptation to target his speech just to the party but must instead address the wider population and kickstart a new era of his premiership. If it is his ambition to convert enough voters to win an election within the next year, he must set out an optimistic vision for the country and convince voters why they should put their trust in him and the Conservative party again. Having been in power for 13 years, this is no easy job, and the turnstile of leaders and government ministers certainly hasn’t helped (how many government departments has Grant Shapps worked in now?)
So, the big question that awaits an answer is whether Sunak will leave Manchester having been able to dictate the front pages or will again be left stumbling for answers to policies that have dominated the pre-conference discourse.
The Prime Minister’s media rounds on Thursday made clear that HS2 is certainly not one of the topics that he wanted to be going into the conference talking about, but as he may have said once or twice already, “the vast majority of the journeys that people make are in their cars”. This is a subject we can expect to come up again and again over the next few days and Sunak certainly won’t be thanking former Prime Ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson for contributing to the conversation and warning him not to drop the second leg to Manchester. To divert from the subject, we can expect more references to other transport investments such as £80 million to protect vital bus routes, £3.5bn since 2020 to improve and protect bus services and the £2 single bus fare cap (oh and don’t forget potholes, what politician doesn’t love a photo opportunity next to a pothole!)
Nevertheless, will the smokes and flares distract journalists from HS2…I think not. I hope you have your tickets booked for Mark Harper’s guest appearance on ‘For the Many Live’ on Sunday evening which I’m sure will be a relaxing start to the conference for him.
Another subject that will be discussed right from the main stage to the booze-filled rooms of Manchester’s booked-out hotels includes climate change and net zero. The Prime Minister’s recent “pragmatic, proportionate and realistic” announcements such as lifting the ban on onshore wind, extending the deadline for heat pump installation and buying new petrol and diesel vehicles until 2035 have polled well and will reassure him that policies favouring the cost of living over rigid climate change targets may provide him with a lifeline. Government ministers will undoubtedly repeat that the goals will still be to reach net zero by 2050 and that the UK has reduced emissions faster than any other major economy.
Other topics of discussion that you can expect to hear will include school funding, housing, immigration, inflation and NHS funding… and don’t be shocked when passionate Tory supporters raise Birmingham City Council declared bankruptcy to emphasise what happens when Labour is in power (enter Liam Bryne).
The Conservative Party Conference is a crucial moment for Rishi Sunak to assert his leadership and the party’s vision. It presents an opportunity to reshape the party’s image and garner public support. However, the challenges are immense, given the party’s time in power and the pressing issues of the day. How Sunak navigates this event will shape the party’s future and its chances in the upcoming election.
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