LONDON: Britain’s ruling Conservatives gather this weekend for their annual conference, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak bidding to revive the party’s flagging fortunes with an apparent reset.
The four-day event from Sunday in Manchester, northwest England, comes with a general election expected next year that Sunak’s Tories – in power since 2010 – look set to lose to the main Labour opposition.
The UK leader, whose keynote speech next Wednesday will close the conference, appears to be shifting his beleaguered party onto an election footing by trying to refocus attention onto a broader policy agenda.
This year’s get-together is being held under the slogan “long-term decisions for a brighter future”, with Sunak arguing in a recent speech that it is “time to address the bigger, longer term questions we face”.
But with Britain gripped by the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, and inflation running at more than 6 percent alongside anaemic economic growth, he is struggling to convince voters that the Conservatives deserve to retain power.
The party is still reeling from damaging periods of turmoil under his immediate predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson.
Sunak, set for his first party conference since becoming prime minister nearly a year ago, also faces a challenge keeping its fractious membership unified, with dividing lines increasingly emerging over several key issues.
They include climate change, infrastructure spending and taxes, as some Tories demand tax cuts to boost their poor standing in the polls.
Fractures over these and other policies could emerge in Manchester, where various fringe events run alongside speeches by ministers on the main stage.
Finance minister Jeremy Hunt, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and hardline interior minister Suella Braverman will all address the thousands of party delegates and other attendees who show up.
Highly politicised so-called culture war issues such as immigration and transgender rights are likely to feature as part of efforts to rally the Tory grassroots and draw dividing lines with Labour.
Three by-elections loom in the coming weeks, and the Tories could lose in each despite winning two of them in 2019.
Political commentator Matthew Goodwin said with the Tories “firm underdogs” going into the general election, this year’s conference has extra importance.
“They are languishing in the polls while Rishi Sunak’s own ratings have been weakening in recent months,” he told AFP.
“Sunak will be wanting to use the event and his speech to project the major themes of the looming campaign and to also try and disassociate himself firmly from the unpopular premierships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.”
Last year’s event was overshadowed by then-leader Truss’s disastrous mini-budget – unveiled less than two weeks earlier – which spooked financial markets and many in her party.
She had only replaced the scandal-tarred Johnson a month before, but resigned after just 44 days in power, becoming the shortest-serving leader in British history.
Sunak then took the helm of his party unopposed, and entered Downing Street as prime minister on October 25.
The former chancellor of the exchequer has spent much of his first year in charge seeking to stabilise the volatile economic situation.
He kicked off 2023 by making five key pledges, including halving the inflation rate, growing the economy and stopping contentious cross-Channel migrant boat arrivals.
But his record on them is mixed as a self-imposed year-end deadline approaches.
Labour – which has sought to depict the ultra-wealthy Sunak as out of touch – has enjoyed months of double-digit poll leads. The party meets for its annual conference in buoyant mood, the week after the Tories.
Amid the gloomy electoral outlook, Sunak has in recent weeks tried to move the national conversation towards his longer-term priorities, in a reset aides have reportedly dubbed “let Rishi be Rishi”.
Last week he announced a controversial softening of green policies aimed at achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Sunak insisted he remains committed to the target but would not risk bankrupting Britain to achieve it.
The move triggered a major backlash from opposition lawmakers, environmental campaigners, the car industry and some Tory MPs, while earning likely unwanted praise from former US president Donald Trump.
Sunak is also reportedly poised to cancel a costly new high-speed train line between Birmingham and Manchester, prompting a similar outcry.
Other potential shake-ups, to education policy and inheritance tax, have also been rumoured and are likely to dominate discussions on the conference’s sidelines.