The backdrop: Sunak needs to demonstrate his leadership acumen
Almost a year into his premiership, Rishi Sunak heads to Manchester this weekend for his first Party Conference as Prime Minister. With Conference offering the membership—those who rejected him just twelve months ago—the chance to mingle, share views, and discuss the state of play, the stakes are high for Sunak and his team.
Allies of the Prime Minister may be reluctant to publicly characterize Conference as a “reset” moment, where he offers the membership a roadmap for closing the polling gap with Labour—but this is exactly what many of his MPs and Conservative Party members will be craving. His attempts to set the narrative —such as by revising the UK’s Net Zero commitments and allowing speculation to grow about scrapping Phase 2 of HS2, the planned high-speed railway—have got off to a shaky start. And with Labour buoyant in the polls, the cost of living stubbornly high, and three looming by-elections, Sunak knows he’s running out of time to turn the Conservative ship around.
Against this backdrop, Conference will in some ways be the Prime Minister’s greatest test yet and, with rumours becoming more widespread of a spring General Election, his MPs know he needs to go into—come out of—Conference on the front foot.
What does Sunak want from this Conference—and can he get it?
The only question that really matters for the membership is this: Can Sunak lead the Conservatives to victory at the General Election?
Upon entering Downing Street, the Prime Minister was clear: In the wake of the Truss premiership, his priority was to restore economic credibility in the Government, without which he believed the public would simply stop listening to the Conservative Party. In conversations with EGA, it’s clear that No.10 insiders are absolutely certain that their efforts have led to the Party regaining the right to be heard, highlighting the better-than-expected economic performance and falling inflation. They nonetheless admit that the Prime Minister is increasingly frustrated about the lack of credit that the Government is receiving for what he sees as taking difficult decisions in the national interest.
Despite reluctance to promote it as such, Sunak will nonetheless wish to use what may be his only Conference speech as Leader to reset his premiership in all but name and build some political momentum. We know he is determined to distance himself not just from Liz Truss but from the previous 13 years of Conservative government and present himself as the “change” candidate. We should therefore expect an attempt to set out what “Sunakism” is, and a demonstration that he has the willingness to level with the British people about the difficult decisions and trade-offs ahead.
One former Minister told EGA that the Prime Minister “needs a miracle to turn around our Party’s electoral chances, but if he has a good Conference, there is a chance that we can stem the bleeding and earn ourselves a respectable defeat.”
The Prime Minister knows this could be his last throw of the dice, and must use Conference to try to unite and galvanize the Party. Given his relatively untroubled ascent, some in the Party fear that Sunak does not have the instincts or inclination to “take the gloves off” and really take the fight to Keir Starmer. He will also have to allay such concerns. Coupled with this will be a continuation of his team’s use of so-called “wedge issues”—drawing clear dividing lines with Labour on immigration, the climate, and culture, which they believe cost Labour in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
In a break from the norm, the Tories are holding their Conference ahead of Labour’s, affording Sunak the opportunity to frame the political agenda to suit himself, and giving him one last chance to attack Starmer for what the Conservatives see as a lack of a clear vision for Britain. In what could easily become an election about change, this strategy may be electorally prudent—but will it work? A former Cabinet Minister remarked to EGA: “A year ago, Rishi was telling everyone he was the man to win us the next election. I'm looking forward to him setting out his plan at Conference.”
The Conservative Party now has a record five living former Prime Ministers. While Boris Johnson appears to be sitting this Conference out, Theresa May will be plugging her new book and Liz Truss has all sorts planned—a sideshow that Sunak will most definitely not welcome. It’s fair to say that members of the Prime Minister’s team are conscious of the role they played in the chaos at the last Conference when Truss herself was Leader. One Special Advisor told EGA—perhaps only half-jokingly: “It will be all fun and games.”
Meanwhile, the “New Conservatives”—a group of Truss-loyal free marketeer-types—have a number of events lined up, which will no doubt follow a predictable formula of criticizing the Government’s approach on everything from business and taxation to immigration and the environment. Liz Truss, Priti Patel, and Jacob Rees-Mogg could attract one of the largest crowds of the Conference with their “Rally for Growth.”
More substantively, the start of Conference also coincides with the coming into force of elements of the Windsor Framework, including provisions affecting shipments of goods into Northern Ireland. Such moments are always nervy for governments, and EGA hears those nerves are being amplified by rumours that the new Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Hilary Benn, plans to spend the day at a port in Northern Ireland, watching closely over proceedings and ready to pounce at the first sign of trouble.
On top of all that (and whatever else Conference has to throw at him), leadership hopefuls in Sunak’s own Cabinet continue to circle. As the Conservative Party grapples with its own identity, the Whips’ office will be in overdrive to get eyes and ears on the likes of Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman, and Penny Mordaunt, all of whom will wish to use Conference as a dry run to set out the direction in which they’d propose to take the Party at a future leadership election.
Having been office for a year, Sunak has work to do to convince Party members—and the wider public—that his vision is the right one for Britain. He also needs to convince them that, amid a wider sense of stagnation and decline, he is not writing the final chapter of the current era of Conservative government.
Don’t expect a quiet few days in Manchester.