The Conservative Party came together for this week’s annual conference with little good news to celebrate. The Party is trailing Labour in the polls by a significant distance. Despite various attempts to reset the agenda (his top five priorities for 2023 and the recent net-zero announcement, to name but a few), time is against the Prime Minister. He needs to begin narrowing the gap between his Party and the opposition if the Conservatives stand a chance at winning in 2024.
The consensus in Manchester among the Conservative Party faithful was that this year’s conference felt flat. The conference lacked backbench MPs on the ground, and those who did turn up quickly departed to avoid the travel chaos caused by the train strikes.
For what is likely to be their final party conference before the next General Election, which Sunak is currently projected to lose, a lot was riding on the Prime Minister’s closing speech. This was Sunak’s opportunity to address his Party and galvanise the support of his troops ahead of the election in 2024, and perhaps even narrow the gap in the polls by a few points.
In Rishi Sunak’s keynote speech, he asserted that his mission was to end the 30-year political status quo, presenting himself as the “change” candidate for the next general election – focused on long-term decision-making for a brighter future. We got the rollback on HS2, the restrictions on smoking, education reforms and criminal justice reforms.
The policy announcements here don’t feel top of minds – and it seems the failure to engage deeply with critical issues, such as the economy and the cost of living, left most feeling a bit muddled.
The question on many minds is whether any of the policy announcements made will be enough. The long campaign for the general election has clearly begun – with clear dividing lines beginning to take shape. With a General Election widely predicted to be in the Autumn of next year, this year’s Conservative Party conference has been marked by an overwhelming lack of a coherent policy platform and big-picture vision that will connect with voters and elevate the Conservatives in the polls.
What was missing from this year was a big personality, something that Boris Johnson never failed to bring. Figures like Nigel Farage saw this as an opportunity to fill a void. The event bringing the most excitement was the former Prime Minister Liz Truss during her pro-growth fringe event at the Midland hotel, which was the most well-attended event of the day, mostly attended by former Cabinet ministers and members of the Growth Group all in agreement for the need for tax cuts.
One clear takeaway from this conference is how Cabinet members are positioning themselves as Leaders in waiting; this was seen in the speeches by Braveman, Badenoch and Mordaunt, speaking to party members who will be selecting the next leader if the next election doesn’t secure Sunak another term in office.
Looking ahead to the Labour Party Annual Conference in Liverpool, Keir’s Starmer’s team now have enough room to position themselves as the Party for Business and the only credible position for a future Government. What is yet to be seen is if Keir Starmer falls into the trap of committing to bringing back HS2 or committing the Party to large spending promises.
One thing currently lacking from Starmer is a clear vision for the country; Johnson’s levelling up and Brexit secured him a strong majority in 2019. It remains to be seen if Starmer can unite the country around one vision that appeals to diverse communities in the Red Wall, Scotland, the southwest, and Conservative heartlands that will be pivotal to gaining a functioning majority while also keeping Labour’s traditional seats in Cities. The country will be watching closely.