Staff Writer Rayhan Hussain recounts his experience at the Conservative Party Conference amidst fiery speeches, partisan pledges, and a climate of uncertainty.
Hello! I want to start by mentioning that this is my first article for Roar News. I am excited to get on board with the team and get stuck in! I aim to inspire conversations about British politics, to figure out what’s really going on in Westminster, to examine what is true and what is not. The last few years have witnessed ultimate political chaos in the UK. Five prime ministers in the last six years, with Brexit, the pandemic, war on continental Europe, market meltdown, the list could go on. We are at a seminal moment in our country’s politics. And the events of the next few months will shape our political landscape for the years ahead. I’m looking forward to making sense of political events and how they impact not just the characters walking around the great halls of Westminster, but all of us, the public too.
Last week I was grateful to attend the Conservative Party conference in Manchester with an apolitical charitable organisation who sponsored myself and other delegates. It was a unique opportunity for us to experience politics up close. Having unprecedented access to MPs, ministers and journalists was an experience that doesn’t come often. I will forever be grateful for the sound advice and words of wisdom I received from many influential figures in our public life. I know for a fact that the skills and knowledge I gained from conference will stick with me for a long time.
“Radical” Policy Blitz
The slogan of this year’s Tory jamboree was “long-term decisions for a brighter future” – quite the mouthful! But with a general election expected in the next year, Mr Sunak wants to be taken seriously – and prove that he is taking a different course to what has come before. We saw that just a few weeks ago with his bold decision to scale back key net zero targets. And his conference speech on Wednesday was no different.
A slew of new policies came with a proposed smoking ban, widescale reforms of the education system for 16–19-year-olds, and the biggest announcement of them all regarding the UK’s transport network. The conference was held in a disused railway station in the heart of Manchester. Ironically, one of the dominant themes hanging over events was the HS2 rail line – and whether it would reach Manchester. The prime minister repeatedly failed to clarify his position on the issue during several media interviews, claiming that a final decision had not yet been reached. But the high-speed rail line linking London to the North of England was certainly the hot topic amongst Tory grassroots.
That was until last Wednesday, when Rishi Sunak confirmed in his keynote speech that he was cancelling the rest of the line. He pledged every penny of the remaining £36 billion would be used on other infrastructure projects. A new Northern Powerhouse Rail, upgrades to roads and motorways, maintaining the £2 bus fare until the end of 2024. The prime minister instinctively believes that HS2, over-budget and already delayed, no longer fits its initial purpose. What’s clear is that he is using this announcement to reaffirm his fiscal prudence. He wants us to believe that he is spending public money responsibly – and to promise us that we will see quicker and concrete results. No new money will be spent on these local projects. But Mr Sunak hopes that re-investing in regional transport will persuade red-wall Northern voters to stick with the Conservatives.
Former prime ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson, both proud advocates of the project, publicly intervened to criticise the prime minister’s decision. But this won’t phase Mr Sunak too much. In setting out his vision for the future of the country, he hopes that voters will stick with his bold and long-term plans as he sees them on the NHS, the economy and education. We will see Sir Keir Starmer set out his vision for the country at the Labour Party conference this week.
The prime minister is keen to be seen as the change candidate. After 13 years of Tory rule, he is well too aware of the opinion polls and how dire they are for the Conservatives. Something has to change. On the current trajectory, Labour is expected to enter government at the upcoming general election. And with those polls remaining grim, it was hard to ignore the sense of despair amongst the party with what is potentially coming down the line. Many MPs simply chose not to attend, having already accepted that they will likely lose their seats next year. I felt a lack of excitement that is normally prevalent at a political conference.
The conference did go better than expected, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, gave a rousing speech to members, re-positioning herself as the darling of the Tory right. She repeated her rhetoric about illegal migration and slammed her “woke” critics. It was the kind of barnstorming speech which was met with thunderous applause. The ghosts of prime ministers past also proved a thorn in Sunak’s side. On the fringes, we had his immediate predecessor, Liz Truss, renewing her demands for tax cuts and urging the prime minister to go for growth in a jam-packed room. A strong sign that the crowd-pleasing former prime minister, with her own bold agenda, is going nowhere.
Another fringe event that caught my eye was with the Business & Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch. As she walked on stage in a packed-out hall to greet the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson, there was no secret of her appeal with the membership. One Tory member urged her to run for the leadership should Rishi Sunak lose the next election, shouting “we love you Kemi” and “Kemi for PM!” Badenoch later assured the Tory faithful that she is fully behind the prime minister and said leadership talk was “a problem” for her. But Ms. Badenoch and her aides will undoubtedly take note of her striking popularity with the grassroots.
General Election Campaign is already underway
This was Rishi Sunak’s first party conference as prime minister. And it could well be the last before the next general election, expected sometime next year. With the King’s Speech, Autumn Budget and cabinet reshuffle expected this autumn, No.10 will use these final big-ticket events to rally the troops. For now though, it is clear that the starting gun for the general election campaign is already underway. Whether he has begun to placate public disillusionment of the Tory brand remains to be seen. But he hasn’t got long.