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Posted: 28.09.23

Blue Manchester – Tory Fight Back or One Big Beauty Contest?

For politicos, the first sign summer is gone and autumn is here isn’t kids going back to school or even Strictly Come Dancing back on Saturday night TV screens – it’s party conference season.

This week saw the Lib Dems in Bournemouth, the Tories hit Manchester this weekend, with Labour just down the M62 a week later in Liverpool for what may well be the last annual gatherings before the General Election. It’s an annual moment for the hardcore party faithful to rub shoulders with their politicians, with a dose of campaigners, charities, business leaders, celebs and the media thrown in for good measure, all squashed into a securely cordoned off conference hall and hotel, fuelled over five days by caffeine and beige foods.

Conferences play a formal role for each of the parties as decision-making forums. They’re also, nowadays, big money spinners, with the cost of tickets, sponsorship and exhibitions swelling party coffers. But there’s also a symbolism attached to them which can shape the political weather. Down the years, conferences – and more importantly, leaders speeches – have on occasions shifted the political narrative, revealed parties in turmoil or propelled oppositions towards power. Seasoned hacks will be watching this year’s conferences in great detail, looking for signs of shifts in power, changing policy priorities and which figures are on the rise and which are on the wane.

More Blue Bazball?

The Tories go into conference languishing in the polls. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has thrown everything at trying to shift the needle, the latest attempt being a form of political Bazball, inspired by the swashbuckling cricket style employed by the England team. Recent weeks have seen a flurry of policy activity – some official announcements (watering down of the net zero commitments), others leaks and briefings (the future of Phase 2 of HS2, extending the ban on smoking, charging £10 for missing GP appointments, and a major overhaul of A-Levels). Perhaps in a sign of political desperation, the Tories have even reached for their ‘break glass in case of emergency’ go-to policy – reform of inheritance tax.

Anything is better than last year

Sunak will be desperate to avoid a repeat of last year’s Tory conference meltdown under Liz Truss – and getting through the week with a show of relative stability will be seen as a result. But he’ll be determined to do better than that and use his speech to galvanise his party, conjure up some political momentum and give his Government’s popularity a shot in the arm.

Already, we’ve seen reports that he’s likely to announce further pro-car policies (or perhaps better described as anti anti-car?), showing that the Conservatives are not giving up yet on their post Uxbridge strategy. Expect similar types of policy announcements to cheer the party faithful, with one eye on shoring up their support in key battleground seats and the mobilising the Tory heartlands.

Little will be about what the Government do with their remaining year or so left in this term in office – instead, expect policy to be about what the Tories plan to campaign on come the General Election. It’s a high risk strategy, as it could come across as the Conservatives acting like they’re an opposition party, rather than the one currently in power. Also, given the furore generated by rumours HS2 to Manchester could be cancelled just days before the party arrives in the city for their conference, the Bazball approach could look clumsy at best.

Avoiding a beauty contest

But there’ll also be other voices on parade in Manchester with different wings of the party pushing their own policy agendas. Sunak is under pressure from one wing to cut taxes. Some are advocating for a tougher line on immigration and commitments to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. He has a delicate balancing act ahead of him.

This will also play into fears that Manchester could become a beauty contest for the runners and riders for any future leadership contest. And, in fact, with her recent visit to New York, it seems Suella Braverman hasn’t even waited for the trip up the M6 before showing off her credentials to the party membership. The problem for the Tories is that the public might interpret headlines focused on those jockeying to be the next leader as a sign the party have given up on the next election.

While much of the focus is on the coming General Election, next May also sees London go to the polls to elect a Mayor. Manchester will be Susan Hall’s first Tory conference as the party’s candidate for Mayor, and already there’s been some reports of unhappiness Hall hasn’t been given a speech in the main hall, instead speaking at a London-themed fringe event.

It will be fascinating to see if Sunak leans into the London contest in his speech – to date, he’s shown little interest in the race for City Hall, London doesn’t figure high in the Government’s priorities and recent coverage of historic social media posts by Hall might see him tread carefully. But might a few recent close polls could see him and his team realise there’s more at play in London than they originally thought? Expect some political knockabout and the usual Sadiq Khan bashing, but cutting through the noise, I wouldn’t get your hopes up for much by way of serious policy focused on London’s big challenges around housing, infrastructure and public services.

Blowing in the Wind

Conference holds a number of other clues for the way the political wind is blowing. The fringe is particularly telling, giving a sense of the big issues exercising the parties. I wouldn’t claim it to be scientific, but some cursory analysis of the Tory and Labour fringe guides sheds some light.

For the Tories, the top 5 subjects being discussed are economic growth, health/NHS, education/schools, skills and net zero[1], the last of these particularly interesting given the recent rowing back by the Government. It’s not that dissimilar to Labour’s fringe, with the most popular topics – health/NHS, economic growth, education/schools, housing/homelessness and energy at the top.

Anecdotally, attendance by campaign groups and charities feels thinner this year, with more focused instead on Liverpool a week later. Exhibition space is also another sign of where sponsors and corporate interests think power lies or, more importantly, where it might be shifting. Labour has 165 exhibition stands in total at their conference in Liverpool, over twice the number (65) at Tory conference. If anything symbolises a shifting political centre of gravity, it is this.

What does success look like?

For the Prime Minister, a successful conference will be one free of gaffes, where internal disagreement over the direction of policy is quelled, where those jockeying for his job don’t grab the headlines and where he is able to craft a speech that captures a renewed energy and vision for the country. But his team will know that the coming days are a moment of maximum danger on all these fronts and given the state of the polls, re-energising a party that’s been in government for 13 years is always an uphill task.

[1] Full figures: Growth (economic) 37, Health/NHS 34, Education/schools/early years 30, Skills 24, Net Zero 22, Energy 22, Housing/homes/homelessness 20, Children/Young People 17, AI 14, Environment/climate/green 13, Levelling Up 13, Transport 9, Planning 4, Democracy/Constitutional Reform/Civil Liberties 4, Rail 4, Public  services 4, HE 2, Devolution 1.