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Conservative Conference: “It is time for a change”. But to what?

Well, that’s a wrap on Conservative Conference – quite possibly the last before the General Election. Could the Conservatives be in Opposition by the time they meet again in Birmingham this time next year?

Despite the election clock ticking down, with a maximum of 15 months to go, this didn’t feel like a Government setting out a bold pitch for their next term in office. The general consensus on the ground in Manchester was that, frankly, they’ve run out of ideas. Instead, the airwaves were dominated all week by a sticky conversation on HS2, with very few fresh policy announcements to distract from the controversial decision to scrap the previously planned HS2 Manchester line.

Could the Leader’s speech turn things around? Well, he packed in a few announcements on redirecting HS2 funding into transport projects in the North and Midlands, re-writing the post-16 education system, restricting cigarette sales, and extending sentences for serious crimes. But this all just felt a little bit piecemeal, and perhaps disjointed from the wedge issues that are likely to be forefront of voters’ minds as they head to the polls next year. We didn’t hear so much concrete policy-making on the cost of living, reversing the gloomy economic outlook, or the state of the health service. Realistically, there’s just very little parliamentary time to get anything done in the next year, but that’s not the most inspiring message for Conservative members to take home with them.

“It is time for a change”, the Prime Minister brazenly stated. This feels a bit of a communications misstep – but he’s right, it’s how his party feels. After a year of the Sunak administration, they’re just not convinced what he stands for, and how he’s going to turn this ship around.

This reflects the chatter amongst party members and Members of Parliament in the bars and on the reception circuit. On the whole, they think the Prime Minister is missing a trick to really shake things up and communicate a clear vision for how he’s tangibly going to achieve his ‘5 priorities’. And there’s a quiet acceptance that the electoral odds are stacked against him, if we’re being honest.

So, on the fringes, instead of a heated debate about the legislative platform for the year ahead, or general election strategising, this felt more like a future-gazing Conference. The real question to be answered was: “why are we Conservatives and what do we stand for? What do we actually think? And who will we become if we have to rebuild from an election defeat?”

Yet, there’s no easy answer here. This year’s Conservative Conference was plagued by factionalism, with different splinter groups from the New Conservatives to the Conservative Democratic Organisation setting out their stall for a different Conservative vision, and a not-so-subtle launch of the next leadership contest – which has already begun, albeit informally.

This dominated proceedings, with a huge snaking queue of party members waiting to hear from Liz Truss at her ‘Rally for Growth’. The former Prime Minister was out in force stirring the pot, stealing the limelight from Rishi Sunak, and returning the favour from last year’s Conference where Team Rishi did what they could to give her the boot from office. But it wasn’t just Truss on manoeuvres, with Nigel Farage parading around the Conference centre with gleeful energy at the prospect of stirring up a rebellion, and being met by a swarm of supporters wherever he went. The uprising may not be imminent, but the battle lines have been drawn for the right-wing of the Conservative Party to ‘take back control’, so to speak, if the guard changes post-election.

That said, there’s by no means a universal consensus, leaving things feeling fairly muddled – and creating a real chasm between the different wings of the party. The Sunak camp seemed pretty happy with how things were going, with heartened supporters referencing the (seemingly fairly rogue) Opinium poll putting the Conservatives just 10 points behind Labour. They think Keir Starmer has a long way to go if he wants to actually secure a majority, and that he’s currently just relying on the Government making its own mistakes rather than having a strong alternative platform.

Overall, the Prime Minister’s team think they got away with it. If we’re benchmarking against previous conferences, this was definitely an improvement on the funerial atmosphere in 2022. Plus, Business Day attendees actually got their dessert at dinner this year, so the party machine can call that a small win.

So, what’s next? In a twist in timetabling to the usual format, Labour Conference is still to go, so the real question is whether Starmer can consolidate his poll lead, and successfully articulate his own vision for the economy. Whatever the conjecture at Conservative Conference this week, Labour Party members will no doubt be heading to Liverpool with a spring in their step, and eyes firmly on the prize of electoral victory.

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