Division, distraction and determination: this year’s Conservative Party Conference had plenty to offer

Joshua Taggart, Junior Consultant

Those who attended this year’s Conservative Party Conference in Manchester could be forgiven for feeling bluer than usual. The Conservatives have significantly and consistently lagged behind Labour in the polls and the public have largely accepted that Sir Keir Starmer will be the next Prime Minister. Despite the conference being notably different in atmosphere from last year (when Liz Truss was briefly Prime Minister and the libertarian wing of the party was charged up), it was just as entertaining to enter the fray and predict the future of the Conservative movement.

The Prime Minister would undoubtedly have loved to focus on his existing missions – reducing debt, halving inflation, stopping the boats, cutting NHS waiting lists and growing the economy. Distracting headlines on Sunak reversing course on HS2 and Net Zero pledges could have derailed his speech, yet he focused on ‘long term’ decisions including education reform to put apprenticeships on a level footing with universities, clamping down on so-called ‘minor crimes’, supply-side reforms to help support the NHS and education sector and his new vision for HS2’s replacement, Network North, which will consist of over £30bn in funding for various transport infrastructure projects in northern England and Scotland.

Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have been clear that their mandate is one of fiscal responsibility, presenting themselves as the ‘grown-ups in the room’ who will balance the budget and relieve the immediate pressures of an economy with little breathing room. This attitude bleeds into other areas: for instance, the Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, told a packed room of Conservative communications professionals (including yours truly) that the Conservatives are the only party who will retain firm stances on Gibraltar and the Falklands. But grown-ups often have to make difficult and unpopular decisions, and with projects such as HS2 running massively overbudget and being warped and changed over time, larger questions are being raised about the UK’s ability to follow through on any pledges at all.

One thing is undoubtedly clear from this conference. A spectre is haunting the Tories: the spectre of Boris Johnson. For all the talk of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak consolidating his policy platform, enacting his 5 pledges (with mixed success), and shoring up support for his leadership before the 2024 general election, Johnson’s longstanding influence on the party and its factions is undeniable.

Whether the highly successful Conservative Environment Network reception with former Prime Minister Theresa May reaffirming the importance of Net Zero pledges to the Tories’ winning strategy in 2019 or the launch of the New Conservatives, led by Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates with a substantial caucus of over 30 members, the party is still reconciling which aspects of Johnsonism to retain and which to discard.

Conference is all about mixing different ideas, viewpoints and priorities and attempting to steer the party’s trajectory for the next 12 months and beyond. However, it was clear at this conference that the future of the Conservatives really is up for grabs, with many leadership hopefuls throwing their hats in the ring. Of note were Kemi Badenoch, who remained firm in her convictions without criticising her Prime Minister; Liz Truss, who has sought to relaunch her initiative to prioritise GDP growth and tax cuts since her keynote speech at the Institute for Government last month; and Miriam Cates, the tip of the spear for a new generation of Conservatives seeking to recapture the spirit of the past.

This last group is particularly interesting and could go on to define the party – indeed, the launch of their manifesto (which is admittedly sparse) was packed out with members, fellow Parliamentarians and journalists and was undoubtedly one of the hottest events of the conference. Standing on a platform of cutting legal and illegal migration, taking a firmer stance against ‘gender ideology’ in public life, turning young people away from university and towards apprenticeships and encouraging small businesses and entrepreneurship within the UK. Their tax pledge – vowing not to support any increase to the tax burden, which is at its highest since the Second World War – has particularly split the Party between those who are concerned with the short-term economic squeeze and those who are concerned that taxes will stifle the economic recovery even further.

The Conservative policy platform and lines of attack against Labour will likely remain consistent until a general election is called next year. Sunak will continue to present his leadership as a calm and rational captain in the midst of an economic storm, and the sale of Starmer-branded flip flops at the conference was not only humorous but indicated a key weakness of the Labour Party which the Conservatives hope to exploit: inconsistency and a lack of clarity. Whether the Conservatives are any more consistent or clear themselves remains to be seen.

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