Conservative Party Conference 2023 – A brighter future ahead?
October 12, 2023
The Tory Party Conference is over and whatever people might think of it, one thing is certainly true: it went better than last year!
The gathering was dominated by speculations around the cancellation of the northern part of the HS2, confirmed by the Prime Minister in his speech. Rishi Sunak used the speech to reboot his premiership by distancing himself from what he called “30 years of status quo”.
This could be the last conference before the General Election in 2024. There are essentially two options: spring 2024, with a potential overlapping with the London Mayoral Election in May, or autumn 2024.
The Prime Minister and his advisers will decide the date based on how well (or badly) they feel the Party is polling, as well as political milestones like the Autumn Statement in November. A good, immediate test will be the Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth by-elections on 19 October.
Until then, here are four points to highlight:
Rishi Sunak still doesn’t have full control of the Party
Truss remains popular with party members who are leaning towards the right. More importantly, 60 MPs have joined the ‘Great British Growth Group’, calling for the Government to reduce taxes, increase deregulation, and stop any discussion around renegotiating a deal with the EU. This is bad news for the PM because the group is about the same size as the Government’s majority in the House of Commons. Although the PM admitted he wanted to cut taxes too, he insisted yet again that the best way forward was cutting inflation. Whether this will be enough to convince the Group’s supporters in the Commons, will depend on whether and how quickly inflation goes down before the elections.
He has left the party vulnerable to criticism and with no legacy to build on
In his speech, almost explicitly, Sunak accused his predecessors of failing to deliver long-term change. This means that, during the electoral campaign, the Conservatives will find it difficult to ask people to trust them one more time based on their past achievements. Fiscal responsibility and prudence are no longer a weapon they can use. Interestingly, the only reference to the pandemic was the furlough scheme he implemented.
The PM made no new major policy announcements
HS2 aside, coupled with the announcement of £36 billion in support of Network North, the conference stood out because of a lack of policy announcements to expand on his five priorities (halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut NHS waiting lists, and stop the boats). The ban on smoking, which his predecessor at Number 10 has already indicated she won’t support, or the proposal for an Advanced British Standard can barely count as significant pre-election policies.
Sunak must reassure business that the Conservative Party is ‘on their side’
After the Party’s relationship with business took a significant blow under the premiership of Boris Johnson when the business community expressed some critical views about Brexit, Sunak devoted time to reassuring organisations that the Party was on their side. However, in less than two weeks, his decision to review Net Zero targets and scrap the HS2 has caused a great degree of uncertainty among business leaders.
An extensive reshuffle
Rumours about a new reshuffle started over the summer recess. This will give Sunak the ministerial team he wants to fight the General Election. Although he has been urged once again to purge an opponent like Suella Braverman, he will find it difficult to do so for internal political reasons as well as because, with a number of high-profile MPs not seeking re-election, the pool is shrinking.
A unifying King’s Speech on 7 November
The Speech, which sets out the government’s legislative agenda for the next parliamentary year, is likely to be short, a set of legislative proposals focused on delivering the main announcements made at the conference, easy for the Government to get through Parliament without major opposition, especially from the right of the Party.
Autumn Statement on 22 November
This could represent a political risk for the Government, with the right of the Party calling for a reduction in tax. Luckily for the PM, the Office for National Statistics revealed that the UK economy made a faster recovery from the Covid pandemic than previously estimated, revealing a stronger performance than Germany and France.
The next months will be crucial: if inflation continues to go down, easing the cost of living, and if the forecast looks good, the Government may be tempted to announce some tax cuts despite some experts continuing to argue that public finances are not able to bear them.
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