Conservative Party Conference 2023
Key Takeaways: Rishi’s populist gamble

As the Conservative Party and Rishi Sunak slumped to 18 points behind Labour in the latest polls, two things were abundantly clear at this year’s conference: the Government genuinely believe they can win the next election and to do so they will have to draw hard lines between themselves and Labour.

Woolf Thomson Jones

Both of these factors have contributed to an odd atmosphere that has left the conference feeling almost entirely detached from reality. Ministers are publicly supportive and push the line that Rishi has a “path to victory” but privately tell you they are worried about their own seat. Ministers have been put out daily to push new ‘policies’ like banning meat taxes and 15-minute cities or tackling “woke science”, but privately admit these are not issues but things that poll well.

That sense of detachment was plain to see across the conference with the ever-present slogan of “long term decisions for a brighter future” being consistently punctuated by naked, short term political decisions with an eye on the upcoming General election. That ironic juxtaposition was not lost on MPs, party staff and delegates.

This political cognitive dissonance is clearest on HS2. The issue has dominated conference. The Government believes it is a popular choice to scrap the Northern leg to Manchester, and creates another ‘wedge’ issue with Labour. Members of its own Government privately disagree and find it hard to defend publicly, acknowledging that the optics of making this announcement in Manchester are politically and strategically baffling. Rishi Sunak and his ministers spent several days and news-cycles refusing to acknowledge the decision was made despite heavy briefing from Number 10. The package itself has already started to be analysed as a repackaging of other transport commitments made in previous manifestos that current and former Governments have also not delivered. The Prime Minister has fired up opposition that did not exist and handed Labour a General Election narrative of betraying the North whilst undermining the most popular element of the 2019 election-winning manifesto: levelling up.

Whether one agrees or not with the decision, the saga is emblematic of how this Government will behave between now and the next election: searching for wedge issues or ‘people’s priorities’ that poll well in the short term (policy by policy, not as part of a bigger vision) and create numerous differentiation points with Labour.

His recent announcement on Net Zero was the start of the new populist platform. It is popular, the message on not burdening people with costs is electorally sound but the technical shift in policy is minor at best. So too with announcements today on banning cigarettes, a new ‘life means life’ prison policy, a forthright stance on transgender issues, ramping up benefits sanctions. It was notable that there was nothing on housing and little if anything on the economy / cost of living. The calculation is that the newly dubbed “grey wall” (those seats where majority of voters are over the age of 55) can swing the election. These policies are for that demographic.

The General Election is thought to be approximately a year from now at which point the Conservatives will have been in power for 14 years. The Prime Minister is attempting to carve out a policy platform as the change candidate who can really deliver. He now has to deliver on these promises. He has one year not to fulfil Labour’s powerful line that that the Conservatives have failed to deliver for Britain during their time in office.

As a business, buckle up. This is a rapidly shifting policy platform being developed on the perceived basis of ‘what the people want’. Businesses would do well, now more than ever, to understand where they sit in the populist politics and ensure they remain engaged with this Government. Change if it comes will come quickly (“The PM is a man in a hurry” was the post-speech lobby briefing.)

The Government believe they are on the right track. They feel they are delivering the people’s priorities and that will win them the next election. The accusation is that it all feels rather disconnected from reality.

Beyond the headlines, we’ve also picked out a few trends to track that will shape the coming year in politics:

The race to be the next leader is on

As Sunak floundered in daily interviews two darlings of the Tory base, Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman, all but fired the starting gun on who will replace Rishi Sunak as the leader of the Conservative Party. Both had policy-less profile pieces in national newspapers and, whilst denying it was anything to do with leadership, outlined their core conservative ideals. The ‘shadow’ operations and briefing were well and truly visible. Expect them to continue their rallying throughout the year with Braverman seeking to leave Government and Badenoch positioning herself as the proponent of Global Britain with her trade deals.

Tory disunity

It was remarked privately that it is easy to forget that this group of tory MPs are not Sunak’s MPs. Support for Sunak and his agenda is thin, many of the MPs in Parliament still feel aligned to the 2019 manifesto which the Prime Minister is drifting from. This was highlighted as one of the reasons for the dearth of parliamentary activity. There are more cracks in the party than you see day-to-day, the closer we get to an election, with so many MPs threatened the question is when do they break ranks with their Government on key policies to save themselves.

Tax cuts rebellion

The most attended event of the conference was none other than Liz Truss’ ‘Growth Rally’. Her core Tory sensibilities on tax and small statism still attract the base. Her message was clear – the Government must lower taxes. Both Hunt and Sunak were forced to deny that tax cuts were in the offing and the latter even had to mention that he wants to cut taxes but cannot in his main speech. With the tax burden the highest since the Second World War, both at a corporate and individual level, expect the backbenchers, some 60 of them now, to make this a real issue for Sunak around the Budget and into the election.

Towns not cities

The policy shifts on HS2 and the renewed focus on local connectivity is a large shift in messaging. With the new (but limited) funding for towns based regeneration and the stated focus on moving away from the vested interests of cities, the Tories are making a local play for votes. The issue is time and money, will this shift make a meaningful difference to local towns or is it just good messaging?

The new ‘nasty party’

A gift for Labour as the Government has reverted to difficult policies of the last decades bearing down on benefits working capability assessments and continuing its heavy handed war on illegal immigration. The party clearly see the electoral benefits of these policy positions – they are not economic choices – but the question now set is how far they will move toward again being perceived as the nasty party and whether they believe it matters.


If you would like to discuss any of the above with the team or have specific questions regarding other policy developments at the Conservative Party Conference, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us through the address.

Please note the team will also be present at the Labour Party Conference next week so do come and say hello. We will also be providing insight and analysis direct from Liverpool.

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