Twitter is awash with news of the on-going Conservative Party conference in Manchester over the weekend. But it has been less about the inspiring speeches and more the notable absence of attendees, with many seats left empty, even during speeches by key cabinet ministers. This disaffection is reflected in a recent poll by Opinium reported in the Guardian which suggests that as many as a third of Tory voters are intending to vote for other parties.
The conference is crucial for the Conservatives as it’s likely to be the last before the next general election. So, the party needs to set out a clear vision for the future of the UK. Instead, it seems to be reflecting internal divisions and a general lack of enthusiasm among party members – the few who chose to attend.
Rifts and discontent
Not only members, but councillors appear to have stayed away this year. This isn’t surprising given recent local elections have seen Tory councillors style themselves as “Local Conservatives” in a bid to distance themselves from their Westminster colleagues.
They are unlikely to be happy with their party’s latest decision to “slam the brakes on the war on motorists”. Community initiatives such as low traffic neighbourhoods, adding cycle lanes and imposing 20mph speed limits around schools are safety measures the government’s own research shows has majority public support. Yet they are now claiming these are ‘anti-motorist’ and intends to override local authorities to reverse these initiatives over the coming year.
Until recently, such road-safety measures would have been considered fairly uncontroversial, and back-tracking on them, nonsensical. But to understand just how far down the rabbit hole the party has gone requires an examination of “fifteen-minute neighbourhoods”. East Anglia Bylines has covered this topic before in a number of articles.
Conspiracy theories as policy
This is a simple town-planning approach which ensures that basic services – schools, shops, a surgery and public open spaces – are all within a fifteen-minute walk of residential areas. The idea was hijacked by conspiracy theorists who believe, as one Forbes article puts it, they are “dystopian, climate-lockdown concentration camps with people electronically chained to their neighbourhoods and fed on ground-up grasshoppers.”
By denouncing fifteen-minute neighbours, Sunak is joining the conspiracists, despite the fact that living close to local amenities is something the overwhelming majority of people support. To say the Tories have lost their way would seem to be an understatement.
Talk of succession
Sunak is beginning to look weak and out of control of his party. Two former prime ministers – Theresa May and Liz Truss – held their own fringe events at the conference, which by all accounts were well-attended, and upstaged the main speakers.
Sensing blood, he is starting to face serious challenges within his own party, some of which is evident at the conference. A few are eyeing the Tory top spot once Sunak’s tenure is history. There are talks of potential successors to his leadership, indicating the belief in an uncertain future for the party. In addition, cabinet ministers have been expressing disagreement and openly criticising his policies.
Division over policies
There are at least two significant points of contention. One is around the issue of net zero and the government’s decision to delay both the ban on new petrol and diesel cars by five years, and the target dates for the phasing out of oil and gas boilers.
Many MPs disagree with this new policy position, as do the wider general public. The announcement also received some notable pushback from industry leaders who have long been planning around the original dates. Just yesterday, the CEO of Iceland grabbed headlines when he announced his resignation from the Tory party, citing deep concerns about the party’s direction.
The other major disagreement is about taxation, with conflicting opinions between Sunak and Michael Gove. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies claims,“this has been the biggest tax-raising parliament since records began”. As a result, Gove is advocating for tax cuts before the next election, while Sunak is stressing the need to prioritise addressing inflation and rising living costs.
When Sunak was asked on “Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg” about Gove’s comments, he refused to be drawn on the subject.
As if all that wasn’t enough for the prime minister to contend with, by Monday afternoon rumours were flying that Sunak has decided to scrap the northern leg of the high speed line from Birmingham to Manchester – where their conference is being held – according to The Times. If true, it will be a devastating blow to the north.
This drove the Tory elected mayor for the West Midlands, Andy Street, to hold an impromptu press conference at the party conference.
In it, he warned Sunak he will be wasting a “once in a generation opportunity to level up” if he scraps the northern leg of HS2. Street’s move prompted Pippa Crerar, the Guardian’s political editor, to comment, “The Tory party has lost control of the news agenda.”
With so much confusion and division amongst warring factions, it is no wonder the conference is shaping up to be a flop.
Speeches to empty halls
Over the last few days, prominent figures like Defence Secretary Grant Shapps and Foreign Secretary James Cleverly – both MPs in our region – have delivered speeches to a mostly empty halls and muted applause, highlighting a lack of interest in what they had to say. The conference is set to continue to Wednesday, culminating in a keynote speech by Rishi Sunak addressing the party’s direction moving forward.
The Conservatives are grappling with internal divisions some of which have been clearly on view. The lukewarm response from those members who chose to attend raises questions about the party’s unity, direction and crucially, electability. Overall, the atmosphere suggests a sombre mood. With a year of polls consistently putting them between 10 and 20 points behind Labour, there are clear concerns about the party’s prospects as they approach a crucial election.