The Tory Party conference took place in Manchester from the 1st-4th October 2023. The conference happens annually during the parliamentary recess, with this year’s being increasingly important ahead of next year’s general election. With party members, the press, and lobbying organisations all in attendance at the conference, speeches, fringe events and receptions were held to rally support for the party and set out its direction for the coming year in Westminster.
Rishi Sunak and his fellow Conservatives’ speeches all centred around the idea that they are the party of change. The main argument made during the conference was that the Conservatives would say it how it is and would make tough decisions to bring about the change that Britain so desperately needs. The slogan of the conference, “long-term decisions for a brighter future”, sought to demonstrate that the Conservatives are doing what is right in the long run even if it seems unpopular right now. They repeatedly contrasted their strong stances on policy with Labour’s inability to take a stance at all.
Sunak used this idea of making tough decisions in his anticipated announcement to scrap the Manchester leg of HS2. He revealed his plan to reinvest the £36 billion that would have been used to build HS2 into the new ‘Network North’project. This project will see upgrades to the rail links between Manchester and Liverpool, a midlands rail hub connecting 50 stations, investment into electrified railways and improvements to main roads. He argued that although this would be an unpopular decision for some, the links from east to west are more crucial than north to south. He also said that the north would see the return on investment more quickly than if they carried on with HS2. However, David Cameron heavily criticised Sunak by saying that the announcement threw away “15 years of cross-party consensus, sustained over six administrations, and would make it much harder to build consensus for any future long-term projects”. The High Speed Rail Group also went as far as to say this decision was the “biggest and most damaging U-turn in the history of UK infrastructure”. This decision has created a clear dividing line between north and south and despite his attempt to highlight the new project’s benefits, it has been met with split opinions within the Conservative Party and the general public.
One of the other major policy announcements that Sunak made was to raise the legal smoking age by a year, every year, which would prevent current 14-year-olds from ever being legally sold a cigarette. He said this policy would be subject to a free vote in parliament. Sunak also proposed an attack on the availability of vapes, “looking at flavours, packaging displays and disposable vapes”. This has been welcomed by many academics such as Prof Rachael Murray, Professor of Population Health at the University of Nottingham, who called this announcement a “bold and welcome step towards achieving a smokefree future and follows the recent adoption of a similar Act in New Zealand”.
Whether it was doctors and nurses striking, or university staff implementing a marking boycott, the Conservatives were very critical. Sunak described the NHS strikes as “all about politics, not patients”. To tackle strike action in universities, Gillian Keegan, Secretary of State for Education, announced a consultation into “minimum service levels” at universities. Keegan claimed this would ensure that students got the level of teaching they deserve. She went so far as to show how Labour would prolong these strikes due to their ties to unions and lobbying groups. This condemnation of striking, whilst minimalising the grievances of the workers striking seems typical of this Conservative government.
As the Party drifts more and more to the right of the political spectrum, Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, received a standing ovation from a packed-out hall for her speech focusing on immigration and crime. Although much of her speech did not contain many new policy proposals, it consisted of some incendiary language. Braverman described mass immigration as a “hurricane” coming to the country. Braverman also justified the need for more stringent police measures to deal with immigrants consisting of criminals and groomers. This dog whistling and fearmongering speaks to the right-wing agenda within the Party to reduce immigration and legislate for stronger border controls. Braverman sought to negate the opposition calling her racist by stating that only those with “luxury beliefs” could call her racist, as they are not the ones dealing with the issues caused by immigration. Although this speech did seem to go down well within the Conservative Party, the xenophobic language throughout indicated just how far the Conservatives have swung to the right.
Speaking of packed-out halls, Liz Truss also received a remarkable amount of support for her speech. This was interesting as the former Prime Minister talked about the need for tax cuts only a year after her disgraced budget left her exiled from leadership. This certainly showed the right-wing agenda being pursued by the conservative party in their quest for success next year.
The Conservatives seem adamant that showing themselves as changemakers and steering further right will win them the general election. I’m sure we will see more of the Conservatives using the rhetoric of making the necessary tough decision, whilst condemning Labour for not taking a stance. The real question is, will this persuade voters to keep them in their current position?