Dickens opens A Tale of Two Cities with those famous lines “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, and in some respects the same was true of the Conservative Party Conference.
For the Party faithful packing into the bars, restaurants, fringe events and the main hall, it felt like the best of times – at least compared to last year.
Conservative Party Conference this year was much busier, more positive, more enthusiastic, and more hopeful when compared to 2022, where members gathered in the midst of former PM Liz Truss’ 44 days in charge of the country.
In recent weeks, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been setting out his stall, beginning to build his electoral platform ahead of the next General Election, which is likely to be called in 2024.
Under the heading of “Long-Term Decisions for a Brighter Future” he has been feeding red meat to his Party members ahead of the Conference in Manchester, which gave those attending a greater sense of purpose, and hope that they are not so doomed as the polls make out.
For those who are not Party members, for many journalists, commentators and others with an interest, it may have felt like it was the worst of times. NHS waiting lists are at their highest; doctors are striking; the cost of living is still impacting families across the country; and inflation is still stubbornly high.
But the real Tale of Two Cities was the fight between Westminster and Manchester over HS2, with the Government hinting over the past week of the cancellation of the project amid spiralling costs and delays. The announcement was made – fittingly – in the Manchester Central Convention Complex, the former site of the Manchester Central railway station.
At a fringe event hosted by the think tank Reform, Andy Burnham – Mayor of Greater Manchester – understandably took aim at Whitehall and the Government over its planned cancellation, its impact on Manchester, and the short-termism of the decision.
Whether popular or not, Rishi Sunak and the Conservative Party have begun to set out their policy platform ahead of the General Election. We are now into the ‘long campaign’, with all political parties gearing up for a May or October General Election next year.
Although Labour still hold a significant lead in the polls, they are beginning to narrow (slightly), and Sir Keir Starmer’s team have yet to make any significant policy commitments. They will need to begin to set out a credible policy platform to put to the country, to ensure they are seen as a party with a credible agenda for change, and to show they are ready to govern effectively. The Tories have already begun to set out their plan. It may not appeal to everyone, but if the mood in the Conference centre is to be believed this week, it will be a closer fight than the polls suggest.
Dickens closes A Tale of Two Cities with the vision of “a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine.” This week might very well have set the starting pistol for the long campaign of a General Election. Whether it’s Starmer or Sunak who wins his way up the path to electoral victory is yet to be seen, but this Conference Season could be a vital first step on that path for both.