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Tories Begrudgingly Admit Labour Played Conference Season Better Than They Did

Keir Starmer is covered in glitter by a protester as he delivers his Labour party conference speech (Alamy)

7 min read

The gulf between how the Conservative and Labour party conferences unfolded has crystallised in many Tory minds the scale of the challenge Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces in avoiding defeat by opposition leader Keir Starmer at the next general election.

“It felt like a governing party’s conference," according to one former senior Conservative adviser who attended Labour Party's annual conference. Faces of former Tory government aides, now working in the private sector, were a familiar sight at the event in Liverpool this week.

Starmer, who brushed off a protester pouring glitter over his head to deliver what Labour advisers say was the probably best speech of his Labour leadership so far, had travelled to Merseyside with wind already in his sails, thanks to a seismic by-election victory over the Scottish National Party on the eve of the conference.

By the time Labour conference drew to a close on Wednesday, there was a clear contrast between the upbeat, disciplined and united affair in Liverpool with the Conservative conference in Manchester a week before, where the Prime Minister's hopes of sparking a Tory turnaround were thwarted by the chaotic cancellation of HS2, and thinly-veiled leadership manoeuvrings by senior members of the party. Labour's conference, on the other hand, passed without major factional dramas, despite the Israel crisis threatening to be a flashpoint for a row

“The contrast could not have been more stark," said another former Tory strategist.

Some Labour advisers were teary-eyed when Starmer brought his speech to an end on Tuesday. "It was quite emotional... it was a really, really big moment," one told PoliticsHome.

That a protester was able to get on the stage and put his hands on the Labour leader for a number of seconds before being removed from the main hall has prompted major questions about security. It was a "scary moment", reflected one Labour official. 

But Starmer's team was delighted by how he responded to the incident, with the Labour leader removing his glitter-covered blazer, rolling up his shirt sleeves and declaring "protest or power – that's why we changed our party." The remark prompted one of many standing ovations during the hour long speech.

One former Tory campaigner, whose job in the party had been to find ways of attacking the opposition, said they used to have "lots of fun" when Labour conference came around. They recalled how they would seize on motions debated on the conference floor, and comments made in fringe events. This time, however, they observed there was very little that emerged from Liverpool for strategists in Conservative party headquarters (CCHQ) to get their teeth into.

The Shadow Cabinet, instructed by Starmer's office to avoid committing news, was also fiercely on message – with senior Labour MPs sticking firmly to policy announcements and party lines handed to them.

But where the conference was heavy on optimistic rhetoric, it was light on specific policy detail. Labour strategists argued they felt it was better for Starmer to use his conference speech to tell a "story" about how he would govern rather than make lots of announcements a year out from when voters are expected to go to the polls. The next general election must be called before the end of 2024.

One senior Conservative figure begrudgingly admitted this was the "right" approach. 

“Labour are presenting a very small target, while the Conservatives had got used to Labour presenting a very big target – and that’s the right strategy," they said. 

"It might be frustrating because we don’t know the policy detail, but strategically they are doing the right thing." 

The chaotic way in which Tory conference unfolded has prompted fresh questions for the Sunak regime, and put the PM under even more pressure to demonstrate to his party that he can reinvigorate their fortunes as MPs prepare to return to Westminster from recess next week.

The Prime Minister, advised by the Conservative party elections strategist Isaac Levido, used his party conference speech in Manchester to pitch himself as an agent of "change" and a political leader who is prepared to rip up what he described as three decades of failed political orthodoxy. He announced that he would cancel the Manchester-to-Birmingham leg of HS2, overhaul the A-levels system, and legislate to eventually end the sale of cigarettes. 

But the decision by Downing Street to announce in Manchester that the city would no longer be connected to the high-speed rail project caused bewilderment among Tories, who felt it was a huge communications error. “On what planet do you decide to announce that in Manchester? It was an absolute gift for Starmer and Burnham," complained one senior Conservative, referring to the Manchester mayor who had staunchly opposed the project's cancellation. 

There was also confusion as to what tied the three major policy announcements together, and the overall vision or brand that the Prime Minister was trying to convey to the country.

Since the summer, No. 10 has sought to reduce Labour's lead in the opinion polls by finding dividing lines with the opposition that it feels it can exploit in the run-up to the next general election. This strategy is set to continue. In November, Sunak will put forward what is expected to be a highly "political" King's Speech, containing policies which the Tories hope will "unsettle" and "disrupt" Labour, and force the opposition party into more uncomfortable positions between now and polling day.

"They [No 10] will keep throwing stuff at the wall until something sticks," one senior Tory told PoliticsHome.

The challenge for the Labour Party is remaining focused and avoiding complacency, with the next general election currently thought to likely be as much as a year away.

One senior Labour source told PoliticsHome they were confident that complacency would not be a major problem, arguing that their last four general election failures have left the party with a "very healthy fear and institutional memory" of losing to the Conservatives.

“We need to accept that the polls aren’t going stay as wide as they are now and that the Tories are going to do lots of aggressive stuff. We need to hold our nerve," they told PoliticsHome.

A striking detail at Labour's conference in Liverpool was how Starmer and members of his Shadow Cabinet publicly talked about not just winning the next general election, but staying in power for a decade. In his speech on Tuesday, the Labour leader promised a "decade of national renewal", while senior Labour MPs Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry also discussed the prospect of the party winning back-to-back elections.

PoliticsHome understands that in the run-up to the Liverpool gathering, there had been a debate within Labour about whether Starmer should talk about a decade in power, with some figures concerned that it may appear overconfident and complacent. However, others argued that it was important to be honest with the public about how long they believe it would take for a Labour administration to fix some of the major issues facing the country.

"We need to be walking with the posture of a party that is ready to get into government," said one Labour figure.

Next week, attention will return to by-elections in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire, where the Conservative party is hoping to avoid further defeats.

Labour sources are playing down the chances of victory in Tamworth especially, stressing that the seat has shifted heavily towards the Tories in recent years. The current Conservative majority in Tamworth is 19,634, meaning it would take a huge swing towards Labour for candidate Sarah Edwards to be elected to replace disgraced former Tory MP Chris Pincher.

But even if the Conservatives win on Thursday, any swing towards Labour would provide further evidence of the Tories' support plummeting. Regardless of who gets hold of seats themselves, both parties will be keen to seize control of the narrative in the early hours of Friday morning.

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