Rishi Sunak Will Tell Tory Conference He Takes Decisions That Others Have Ignored
Rishi Sunak will claim he is the political leader to take the tough decisions that others have put off when he takes to the stage at Conservative party conference in Manchester next week.
On Wednesday, Sunak will deliver his first Tory conference speech as Prime Minister and Conservative party leader since replacing his predecessor Liz Truss in Downing Street almost a year ago — and he will do so against a foreboding political backdrop.
Despite Sunak having successfully brought some stability to the parliamentary Conservative party after years of chaos and in-fighting, the Tories remain far behind Keir Starmer's Labour Party in the opinion polls ahead of next year's general election, which must be called by the end of 2024.
The looming spectre of defeat is why many Conservative MPs, anxious about their chances of reelection next year, are giving the Manchester Central exhibition centre a miss in order to campaign in their constituencies.
"It's every man or woman for themselves," remarked one senior Conservative.
One Tory backbencher joked that some MPs are "probably doing job interviews" instead.
Sunak's conference speech – potentially the only one he will give as Prime Minister – will present him with opportunities both to lift spirits within the Tory ranks and give the nation a much clearer sense of what he stands for as he prepares to take the fight to Starmer.
In his speech, which he is preparing alongside his political secretary and close friend James Forsyth, the Prime Minister will attempt to show that he is the person to take on “genuine decisions that have been lying around for a long time”, one ally told PoliticsHome.
It also set to be a highly political speech, as Sunak and his advisers try to find clear dividing lines with Labour which they hope will eat away at Starmer's double-digit leads in the polls.
The Prime Minister is also set to flesh out his pro-car agenda when he speaks in Manchester.
The Conservative party's surprise victory in the Uxbridge by-election this summer, where local opposition to London mayor Sadiq Khan's plan to expand the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) prevented a Labour victory, has led No 10 to roll out a national message of protecting car drivers.
But as the PM tries to set out a vision for the country that he believes can win the next general election, there are already signs that his plans will face resistance from Conservative MPs as different wings wrestle over the future direction of the party.
Looming large over the Manchester Central exhibition centre over the next few days will be major question marks over the future of HS2, and whether Sunak will go ahead with long-standing plans for the high-speed railway to go as far as nearby Manchester Piccadilly Station.
The Prime Minister and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt are currently weighing up whether to axe or delay this part of the line in order to save money. The ongoing lack of clarity over the project has irritated some Conservative MPs in the north of England, who this week expressed concern to whips about what they describe as a vacuum, PoliticsHome understands.
A decision by Sunak to curtail the line would risk furious accusations that the Tory government is abandoning the north having promised to "level up" the region. Senior Tories including former prime minister Boris Johnson and ex-chancellor George Osborne have urged the government to stick with the Manchester-to-Birmingham leg, while this week mayors including Manchester's Andy Burnham warned that ditching this part of the route would consign the region to "Victorian transport infrastructure that is unfit for purpose".
On Monday evening in Manchester, the Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs (NRG) will launch its own pre-general election manifesto. While the document isn't expected to specifically mention HS2, it will be seen as a warning to ministers that they cannot afford to be perceived by the public as rowing back on their commitments to the north of England if the Tory party is to have any chance of avoiding defeat at the next general election.
"Our 'Manifesto for the North' is more than a document; it's a call to action," Mary Robinson, the MP for Cheadle and NRG member, writes for The House ahead of conference.
It's not just Conservatives in the so-called "red wall" that Sunak will be wary of, but the party's self-styled moderate MPs in the One Nation group, too – who are increasingly concerned by signs that No 10 is drifting further to the right in a bid to improve Tory electoral prospects.
“We seem to be pitching to the narrowest base. It’s not just One Nation colleagues who are concerned," a senior Conservative MP told PoliticsHome before heading to Manchester.
For months, the party's moderate MPs were relatively relaxed about Home Secretary Suella Braverman explicitly saying she wanted to see the UK leave the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), even though they vehemently disagreed. As one former minister explained, they felt No 10 was letting her "freelance" in order to convince the right of the parliamentary Tory party, with whom she enjoys high levels of support, that Sunak would be prepared to withdraw from the treaty as a way of stopping small boats crossings.
But as PoliticsHome reported on Thursday, a report by The Times that No 10 had authorised Braverman's speech to the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington this week, in which she was highly critical of the treaty, had left them feeling "spooked".
Ex-Tory Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, said the ECHR issue "is quite a defining moment for quite a few Conservatives, including Conservatives in the parliamentary party".
“I think it is going to pick a fight with an element of the parliamentary party, is my impression, obviously I can’t speak for them, as I am not in it," he told PoliticsHome.
Amber Rudd, the former Conservative Cabinet minister, this week urged Sunak to not be "pulled away" by what she described as "populist" MPs on the right of the Tory party.
By showing Manchester and the nation what he stands for, the Prime Minister may also set up the fights he is willing to have with Conservative MPs in order to avoid a general election defeat.
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