Rishi Sunak Promises "Change" As The Conservative Party Fights Over Its Future
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty at Conservative party conference in Manchester (Alamy)
Rishi Sunak has claimed he is the leader for "change" in a speech to Conservative party conference in a bid to boost Tory chances of avoiding defeat at the 2024 general election.
But in Manchester this week the Prime Minister's message has had to compete with a huge row with local leaders over leaked plans to scrap the second leg of HS2 and a battle with the increasingly radical factions of Tory MPs for the future of the party.
Sunak took to the stage on Wednesday as Labour enjoyed another boost in voter intention polling, with Keir Starmer's party maintaining a double-digit lead. This could be the last time the Prime Minister makes his pitch to party conference before the next general election, which is due to be called before the end of 2024.
The party's elections guru Isaac Levido told a cohort of Conservative MPs in Manchester that a public appetite for change is the biggest challenge facing the Tory party at the next election to have a chance of preventing the Labour's first election win since 2005. Sunak's effort to distance himself from every predecessor as PM since Margaret Thatcher, who left office in 1990, was a recurring theme in his speech.
The Prime Minister saved most of conference's major policy announcements for Wednesday's hour-long address, in which he confirmed plans to overhaul A-levels and replace them with a new single qualification called the Advanced British Standard, phase out the sale of cigarettes, and a contentious move to scrap the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2.
Part of Sunak's promise for change is a claim that he will make tough decisions which those before him have ignored – the most high-profile of which being his move today to curtail HS2 and redirect the money saved to "hundreds" of transport projects in the north of England.
Directly addressing those who support HS2 reaching Manchester as originally planned, a group which includes former prime minister Boris Johnson and the Tory mayor of Birmingham Andy Street, the Prime Minister told party members "the facts have changed" and that "the right thing to do when the facts change, is have the the courage to change direction".
Questions over the future of HS2 had loomed large at the Manchester Central conference centre leading up to Sunak's speech, and the vacuum was filled by figures like Street and Andy Burnham, Labour's mayor of Manchester, warning ministers that cancelling the rest of HS2 would be tantamount to abandoning their pledge to "level up" the region.
The conference has also played a host to a struggle for the direction of the Conservative party, centred around senior Tory figures who are tipped as leading candidates to succeed Sunak if he goes on to lose to Starmer at the next general election.
There were excited chants of "Braverman! Braverman!" by Tory party members when Home Secretary Suella Braverman addressed a fringe event hosted by The Daily Express on Tuesday evening.
Braverman threw her weight behind Sunak in her remarks to party members, paying tribute to him as a "common sense Conservative".
But having gained the support of a significant number of MPs on the right of the parliamentary Tory party – including John Hayes, who introduced the home secretary on Tuesday evening – the prospect of radically right wing Braverman leading the party post-election has been a major talking point on the sidelines of the conference.
The presence of Liz Truss and her libertarian disciples also served as a reminder to Sunak that while he may have replaced her in Downing Street, the aggressive, tax-cutting agenda she advocates continues to enjoy support among some Tory MPs and a chunk of the party membership – even if it is discrete and ridiculed among general public.
No 10 was relaxed about the former prime minister's speech to a well-attended 'growth rally' on Monday, believing that while she may still have some support among card-carrying Tories and a minority of MPs, she is totally out of step with the general public.
One Sunak ally said Truss needs to "read the room". A Cabinet minister told PoliticsHome her political career is "completely dead".
Paul Holmes, the Conservative MP for Eastleigh, told PoliticsHome Truss is to blame for the dire position the party finds itself in heading into the next general election.
"There is only one person that is responsible for making people feel that necessary tightening went into wanton destruction, and that was Liz Truss’ period in government," he said.
"It meant people like us knocking on doors and looking at people who were rightly angry because we lost the last thing that we always keep against a Labour opposition, which is economic competence.
"To then say to them, actually we're going to bring down inflation when they blame us for inflation rising in the first place, that makes it really difficult.”
In an attempt to "gee up" Conservative MPs, as one former secretary of state in attendance put it, strategist Levido told them that there was still a path to victory at the next general election. This, he said, was by winning back voters who supported the Tories at the last general election in 2019, but have since drifted away to being undecided or unmotivated.
There is also a belief that Sunak outperforms Starmer among this group when put head-to-head. Greg Hands, the Tory party chairman, put forward this argument when he appeared on PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown in Manchester."Not a single person has ever come to the doorstep and told me that the solution to their problems is Sir Keir Starmer," he said.
No 10 has urged Tory backbenchers to post more tweets promoting government policy, complaining that some Conservative MPs are not doing enough to plug Sunak's agenda. Putting it bluntly, one MP told PoliticsHome many Tory MPs, pessimistic about the party's electoral prospects, "can't be arsed" doing so.
According to James Johnson, co-founder of JL Partners Polls, the general election is still "wide open" for the Conservative period despite a long period of large Labour leads in the opinion polls, arguing that the opposition's lead is showing signs of being soft.
However, the former Downing Street pollster warned that Sunak currently lacks a clear, overall vision, or "brand", which ties his recent policy announcements together.
"They're sort of like baubles without a Christmas tree," he said on Tuesday.
"They’re like: ‘Okay, policy there, policy here'. They [voters] will forget about it in a few days.
"I've got no doubt that though the net zero announcement gained a very positive reaction in focus groups, I think now they have probably forgotten about it."
Additional reporting by Nadine Batchelor-Hunt, Tom Scotson and Zoe Crowther.
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe