The annual Conservative Party conference saw party members, MPs, former prime ministers, and even Nigel Farage gather in Manchester to set out what the party stands for in 2023. Going into the conference, the health of the party was already in some doubt: languishing 17% behind Labour in the polls and predicted to be wiped out by a landslide in next year’s general election. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak would have been hoping that the conference could have been a chance for the party to band together behind major new policy announcements and show a united front to try and claw back some ground on the opposition. But did it all go to plan?
Mr Sunak’s headline policy announcement was the decision to scrap the second leg of HS2 between Birmingham and Manchester , already a politically contentious decision from a man whose time as Chancellor had initially been defined by promises of ‘levelling up’ the North, made significantly more awkward by the fact that he was announcing it in the very city set to lose out.
Although some Tory ministers enthusiastically supported the move, reception elsewhere was frostier. Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham was unimpressed, declaring that “people in the North will be treated as second-class citizens – again.” While opposition from Labour was perhaps to be expected, Mr Sunak’s own party’s response was hardly brimming with positivity. Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street described the decision as “laughable,” and former Prime Minister David Cameron called the move “the wrong one.”
The fragility of the Prime Minister’s authority shone through, and like vultures around a limping animal, potential successors were circling. Home Secretary Suella Braverman had the chance to make her pitch during her half-hour speech in her most outspoken attack on immigration and the ‘wokeness’ yet, decrying the “gust compared to the hurricane that is coming” and criticising the “poison [of] gender ideology, white privilege [and] anti-British history.”
Populist, some might say, but what about popular? Not with Conservative London Assembly member Andrew Boff, whose heckle of “there’s no such thing as gender ideology” saw him evicted from the room. It seems that the concerns he raised when interviewed afterwards, about how the Conservative party is beginning to look “transphobic and homophobic,” fall largely on deaf ears in Mr Sunak and Mrs Braverman’s new rightward-facing iteration of the party.
This new Conservative party, however, was not quite ready to shake off the shackles of its past just yet. Attracting one of the biggest crowds of the weekend was the Ghost of Conference (just) Past in the form of Liz Truss at her ‘Great British Growth’ Rally. Her message was clear: “stop taxing and banning things, and start producing and building things,” rhetoric strikingly similar to that which she used during her 49-day-long stint as leader last year – a stint cut short after market panic following major tax breaks in her ‘mini-budget.’ Although her support among the Tory membership remained enthusiastic, colleagues of hers were not as glowing in their praises; MP Conor Burns remarked how “some people with very strong views can serve the party best and the country best by keeping quiet.”
Ms Truss is currently the 52nd-favourite to become the next Conservative leader in the event of the Prime Minister’s resignation. The favourite, business secretary Kemi Badenoch, kept a relatively low profile, however the attendance of Nigel Farage, and rumours of his rejoining the party after 31 years, span a twist on proceedings. Mr Farage himself ruled out rejoining, claiming the party to be “virtually indistinguishable from Labour,” but the Prime Minister’s refusal to rule out welcoming him back as a member is perhaps indicative of the ideological shift in the party under his stewardship.
So what, if anything, can we take away from this? According to former Lord Chancellor David Gauke, not a whole lot: in his view, “you’ve got a sort of fundamental problem, which is that the Conservative Party doesn’t really know what it thinks.” If Mr Sunak wanted the conference to strengthen the unity of the party’s message, on this account he seems not to have succeeded. Likewise, the party is still polling at 27% – exactly the same level as before the conference. What it did showcase was just how far right the Tories are willing to swing to try and face up to Labour; of course, only time can tell whether this strategy is to be a winning one for Mr Sunak and his colleagues. Otherwise, the overwhelming feeling during the conference was a familiar one for Conservatives and the country alike: chaos, conflict, and perhaps most of all, confusion.
Image: Number 10 via Wikimedia Commons