College Green Group blog

What to expect at the Conservative Party Conference

The Conservative Conference will be an opportune time for the Government to showcase their successes to a sceptical electoral, however, in many areas they are adopting a risky strategy that could turf the party back into electoral wilderness.

This time last year the Conservative Party was about to enter a difficult conference season. The Party stood 20% behind Labour in the opinion polls, was suffering from large swathes of its own Members of Parliament choosing not to attend, and was staring directly at electoral wilderness. This year, not much has changed – albeit the Party has now closed the gap with Labour to 18%.

Manchester’s conference will be Rishi Sunak’s first as prime minister, and comes freshly off the back of a sweeping revision of the Government’s net zero commitments and some glimmers of hope in the opinion polls. It will also be the first time in living memory that the Conservatives have squeezed their conference in before Labour’s.

Unlike the Labour and Liberal Democrat conferences, Conservative members do not have the chance to build a policy platform to present to voters, however this does not mean that Party policy will not be focused on in Manchester. The Party’s new slogan ‘Long-term decisions for a brighter future’ has strong echoes of David Cameron’s ‘long-term economic plan’ and gears the Party up for what it expects to be a 2024 vote of a distrusting and sceptical electorate.

Net zero

High on the agenda will be the perceived dilution of the Government’s net zero commitments. Early polling suggests that the public are split down the middle on this move – 47% approve of the Government’s decision to delay and/or cancel policies to reduce emissions, whilst 46% disapprove. Predictably, most Conservatives support the decision – a rare show of unity from a Party that has spent the last seven conference seasons focusing on infighting. Whilst there is some positive news for Sunak (as half of the public say they support extending the ban of petrol and diesel cars to 2035 compared to 34% who oppose it), public trust in the Conservatives to reduce the cost of living remains very low; only 15% trust the Party on this issue, compared to 79% who do not trust them. This is despite Sunak’s key rationale behind his net zero decision being reducing the cost of living.

Following the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, Conservatives smelt blood in the water and a path towards retaining some vulnerable seats in Greater London that would otherwise be subject to Mayor Sadiq Khan’s plan to enlarge the city’s ultra-low emission zone. The Party will look to double-down on this shift in focus at the conference, and Sunak will undoubtedly emphasise it as a means to ease the pressure facing voters’ wallets. The Party and prime minister will also use conference and his speech to drum up support from ‘green grumblers’ and make them more receptive to the policies than the net zero enthusiasts. This will be difficult, as green policies are popular and most across the UK do not believe the Government is or has been doing enough to realise them.

Focusing on the net zero shift is a gamble should the Party choose to place it front and centre of the conference. However, watering down environmental commitments risks damaging an already battered Conservative brand by painting the Party as beholden to unrepresentative, destructive business interests. In this regard, the Party is fighting on two fronts – against businesses embracing ESG policies and sustainability initiatives, such as Ford, and those who want looser regulations in order to grow. The Party has seen its support from business collapse in the past year, so Sunak will need to tread carefully to please multiple stakeholder groups.

The economy

There is no doubt that this Government’s focus is on the economy – and Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, fresh from a global whistle stop tour of Silicon Valley, Seattle, and San Francisco will be keen to prove the Treasury’s efforts to improve the economy are working.

Hunt’s November ‘Autumn Statement’ will focus on inflation and he has commented that the goal is to restore it to 2%. Inflation is going in the right direction and voters should see a significant drop in food prices in 2024, but the Government’s concern is whether this is happening quickly enough for voters to realise and credit Number 10. Coupled with the recent figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that found the UK economy has performed better than France and Germany since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, both make for favourable headlines that will be championed by the Party at conference.

Previous estimates indicated that the UK was the only G7 member to have a smaller economy than before Covid after shrinking by 0.2%, now figures show they are in the middle, behind the US, Canada, and Italy. However, these do little to improve the overall picture of the economy.

Whilst these figures may resonate with those uninterested in the economic details, the reality stands out. Economic output is only 0.4% higher than it was this time last year – it ought to be far higher for a meaningful economic bounceback. Cash amounting to £4 billion has been withdrawn from pension pots between April and June this year according to HM Revenue & Customs. This is an increase of nearly one fifth on the previous quarter’s £3.4 billion. This is an alarming development and will partly be due to high energy bills and food prices. Pensioners simply want quick cash to get by – and many do not believe the Government is doing enough. This is particularly concerning for the Conservative Party whose base largely consists of the group.

Additionally, the UK’s PMIs and retail sales reports both missed economists’ expectations, and Citigroup’s UK economic surprise index is now teetering just above the level of 0, and its lowest level since March. Another factor behind the economic malaise is the repricing of interest rate expectations. With inflation falling in July and August, the Bank of England is no longer expected to raise borrowing costs several more times – UK interest rates may even have peaked. But in America, the Federal Reserve is expected to push US interest rates higher before the end of the year, and keep them higher for longer than previously expected.

The Government is fighting fire in multiple areas and will look to champion the ‘easy wins’ – inflation is going down and economic growth is increasing, two of Rishi Sunak’s ‘five pledges’. If Sunak can prove he is delivering, he may be looked on more favourably by some voters. He still faces an uphill battle.

Small boats

The Government has faced heat in the wake of a summer in which tens of thousands of people crossed the channel in small boats. As at 27 September, 24,293 people had been detected crossing the English Channel in 2023, according to the Home Office, which is 25% fewer than had done so at the same point in 2022. However, many within the Party and on the ideological right do not perceive this as a success.

Sunak suffered a string of defeats in July in the House of Lords whilst attempting to push through illegal migration legislation. The longer this continues, the more impatient many will get with the Government and they will turn to others. In the wake of Keir Starmer setting out Labour’s policy to assess the claims of people arriving in small boats on a case-by-case basis, 43% of the public have said they support this policy. In comparison, 38% say they support the Conservatives pledge of immediately removing those migrants and preventing their return. 19% said they supported neither or were unsure.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman will make a speech that repeats many of the points she has already made before. She has referred to an “existential challenge” posed by illegal migration, and said multiculturalism was a “misguided dogma” which had allowed people to “live parallel lives”. Should she repeat these claims that have already been condemned by those within the Conservative Party, the headlines from the conference will not appeal to a British audience that, according to a British Social Attitudes survey, is the most socially progressive it has been in decades.

Expect these key issues to be raised at Conservative conference – alongside a smorgasbord of talk about the potential scrapping of HS2’s Manchester link, American Bully XL pitbulls and breed-specific legislation, and of course what it means to be ‘Conservative’. The presence of Liz Truss and her Conservative Growth Group, attending conference en-masse, will ensure that this family gathering will be a far cry from harmony. 

Many Conservatives believe this will be the last party conference before a general election and an inevitable leadership race. It is therefore a chance to begin posturing and positioning policy – this conference may be the starting gun that sets the Conservative Party running into electoral wilderness and a return to power. 

Want to know more? Sign up to our newsletter here.

About the author