Downing Street Sign, London, UK

High-speed headaches for the Conservative Party in Manchester

The Conservative Party geared up for its annual party conference in Manchester amid an uncertain background plagued by low polling numbers and the prospect of a General Election on the horizon.

However, electoral uncertainty quickly turned to policy when it became clear from the opening day in the Northwest that the Prime Minister would come under increasing scrutiny about the future of HS2, one of the country’s most prominent infrastructure projects.

Those travelling to the conference from outside of Manchester will not miss the irony that the announcement that the Northern leg of the project would be scrapped amid spiralling costs, came during the week of strike action from railway workers.

This year’s conference featured a relatively new crop of Cabinet Ministers eager to impress party activists, the press and public about the future policy direction of the party and draw a clear line of differentiation between themselves and a Labour Party who appear to be on the up.

Despite this, one of the star attractions in Manchester appeared to be the former Prime Minister, Liz Truss. Speaking to a packed-out and supportive audience she called for corporation tax cuts, fracking and a major house building programme, less than a year after her resignation.

Her proposals were roundly supported by perhaps a surprise guest at the conference, Nigel Farage. The former UKIP leader becoming an unwelcome sidenote to the four days for the Prime Minister, with the commentariat speculating on a possible return to the party.

As ever, the Conservative Party faithful heard from a series of Cabinet Members, ranging from the Health Secretary, Steve Barclay to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt. The Conservative Government, which in various guises has now been in power for over 13 years set its stall out early and was keen to project a united front in a bid to differentiate itself from a Labour Party clearly in assent in the polls.

While light on policy, the various speeches at conference showed a clear shift in direction, with speakers such as the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman and Tory star, Kemi Badenoch clearly keen on attacking the opposition for, as the latter put it, bending “the knee before this altar of intolerance.”

With major speeches focusing on the party’s credentials of being “anti-woke” and fighting the agenda of “gender ideology”, the upper echelons of the Conservative Party are advertising themselves as a fundamentally different option to the Labour Party and perhaps even what came before them in the form of Cameron, May, Johnson and Truss.

In one of the most heavily trailed events of the conference, Suella Braverman launched her keynote speech and right-of-the-party credentials with a warning that a “hurricane” of migration was coming to the UK.

While this may have been the headline she hoped would land in the morning papers the next day, her speech was muddied by ‘blue on blue’ heckling from the audience. Former Leader of the Conservative Party in the London Assembly and current Assembly Member, Andrew Boff was ejected from the hall for opposing Braverman’s views on “gender ideology” dismissing them as her “talking rubbish” and describing her speech as a “homophobic rant.”

With internal disagreement over HS2 and unease within the party over gender and trans issues, all eyes fell on the final day to Rishi Sunak, delivering his first address to conference as Prime Minister. A bid to move the narrative beyond the scrapping of the northern leg of the rail line, saw Sunak unveil a further £36bn of transport funding for projects across the country, hoping to alleviate the concerns of party members and the public that the decision amounts to a rowing back on levelling up promises.

Throughout his speech, the Prime Minister made a flurry of policy announcements, including a ‘New-Zealand style’ smoking ban, a new “Advanced British Standard” which would reform A-Levels and reform of workflows within the NHS.

What was most notable about his time at the lectern, however, was less the policy announcements and more the theme underpinning his message. Sunak focused heavily on the concept that British politics is broken and that his premiership represents a diversion from the status quo in Downing Street.

While consecutive Conservative Governments have occupied No.10 since 2010, Sunak’s predecessors have also tried to distance themselves from theirs. Whether the concept that Sunak and his policies represent a material change to the Conservative Party as we know it, remains to be seen.

Sunak faces a tall order in addressing the gap in the polls and positioning himself as the Prime Minister of change when his party and himself have played such a central role in public life for a number of years appears to be a high-risk electoral gamble. The stage is now set for a Labour Party conference in Liverpool, where Keir Starmer will undoubtedly set out his stall for change too.

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