Rishi’s Reset: On Track or De-Railed?

An overview of Conservative Party Conference 2023

The mood going into this year’s Conservative Party Conference was by no means buoyant and, sitting at a sizeable 20 points behind the Labour Party in the polls, Sunak would have hoped for a conference which he could use to demonstrate to the public that his Conservative Party is worth their trust, and their vote.

Instead, the first few days of this year’s conference were shaped by in-fighting and confusion. News of the Prime Minister’s plans to scrap the Manchester portion of HS2 loomed over the events like a dark cloud, dominating headlines which were not helped by contrasting lines taken by different Government officials on whether a decision had been made.

Meanwhile, Rishi’s predecessor, Liz Truss made a dramatic return to the spotlight with an impassioned speech to the “Rally for Growth” event in which she doubled down on the same rhetoric that earned her the title of shortest-serving Prime Minister just one year ago. She was joined by other sitting MPs, including Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg; her group of supporters is now thought to have grown to include 60 MPs in total which, if accurate, threatens Sunak’s majority in the Commons. But it is not only his predecessor who he needs to be watching over his shoulder for.

Home Secretary, Suella Braverman maintained a high profile this year’s conference, and some have branded her performance as a preview of her leadership pitch, given that the Prime Minister’s position will be untenable if the Party loses the next election. The conference served as a litmus test of grassroots support for several other senior party figures who might also throw their hat into the ring should the opportunity arise such as Priti Patel, Kemi Badenoch and Penny Mordaunt.


Policy announcements

The big policy announcements from this year’s conference came in Rishi Sunak’s speech on the Wednesday morning. Overall, the Prime Minister delivered a well-constructed and well-delivered speech in which he set out his own vision for the country through a series of bold policy proposals: he finally confirmed that the Manchester leg of HS2 would be scrapped; he announced a proposal to reform further education to make Maths and English compulsory until 18; and outlined a commitment to incrementally raise the minimum age to buy tobacco so that modern children will never be able to do so legally.

The Prime Minister also leaned heavily into cultural issues such as sex education and transgender rights, stating that “we shouldn’t be bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be.” This followed an announcement from the Health Secretary, Steve Barclay, that trans women would be banned from female NHS wards and Suella Braverman saying that she would forbid sex offenders from changing their gender.

After 13 years of Conservative government, it will be hard for the Prime Minister to position himself to the electorate as the candidate for change but if this pre-election style address is anything to go by, he is certainly going to try.


What comes next?

Despite the mishaps of this year’s conference, there is one thing which we can take from it – a new Rishi Sunak has been launched. The Prime Minister is presenting himself as a bold reformer who is prepared to take difficult decisions when they are necessary and to say the things which other politicians have been afraid to say.

This strategy could go either way for the Party. While the opinion polls have not seen any significant shift since Sunak’s first big announcement on shelving environmental policies, recent numbers from Survation show that half of the public are in support of the Government’s decision to delay some of its targets to reach net zero.

If Sunak is to really capitalise on this, he will need to do more of the same. His verbal positioning as the candidate for change must be backed by more announcements of significant reform as well as decisive action on those he has already set out. If he can convince the public that he will truly ‘do things differently’ to his predecessors, and that what he brings to the table is a distinct, true-blue form of conservatism, then a defeat at the polls at the hands of the Labour Party could no longer be a foregone conclusion.

Public Affairs team, FleishmanHillard UK