Conservative Party Conference: What to expect in Manchester
Text | Cicero Team
Date | 29 September 2023
Read | 5 min
Cicero Team

Rishi Sunak heads to Manchester for his first Conservative Party Conference as leader with the air of a man who is finally getting to se this own agenda unbound, if still somewhat burdened by the positions of Prime Ministers past.

Sunak’s party started the month in dire straits, dipping in national polls to below a quarter of the electorate’s preference in one case, and delivering mixed results at recent by-elections. But he heads North with a healthy bounce after taking new policy positions on Net Zero, A-level reforms, and encouraging fresh discussions over tax, multiculturalism, and HS2.

Opportunities for Prime Minister Sunak

The hope for the party’s strategists is that letting Rishi be his own man will reveal him to the public as someone who fundamentally thinks like the country does. Someone who understands the pressures that people are facing on their finances, and puts practicality above politics – rather than someone who has one eye on the door already, has a nest-egg greater than most could ever dream of, and who is just serving out his time until anal ready-lost General Election.

Sunak will benefit from a Conference that is calmer than a year ago, with a lot fewer enemies plotting on the fringes and in the media than Liz Truss had in the wake of her mini-Budget. The Prime Minister’s first Leader’s speech will attempt a rabbit out of the hat – with speculation continuing to swirl around cancelling HS2 after the PM refused repeatedly to rule out reviewing the project – while trying to unite the Conservative Party as they head into what might really be a year-long election campaign.  

There is added impetus for Sunak to make his mark from the fact that this is the first time the Tories have gone before Labour. Conference timings were an unspoken agreement, the governing party goes last, but for reasons unspoken Labour ended up booking theirs for next weekend and will be happy with the ability to have the last word in the public’s minds.

Tory leadership contenders past, present and future

Who else impresses in Manchester though is still up for grabs. Liz Truss is back, leading a rally on growth with former Home Secretary Priti Patel and former Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg. And it remains to be seen whether Boris Johnson makes himself heard as well either in the city or in the media. A number of aspirant types have their eyes on the future too.Sharp-elbowed ambitious future leaders among the Cabinet will have been invited to lead fringe events with think tanks and campaign groups with a view to cementing their places as natural successors should the ball come loose from the back of the scrum. Among the most billed this year are Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, Security Minister Tom Tugendhat, and Leader of the House ofCommons Penny Mordaunt.  

Potential protests, PPCs and party prospects

Conference goers should expect protests. The People’sAssembly is gathering unions and campaigners on the Sunday for a march, and Just Stop Oil is expected in the city on the Monday. It remains to be seen if they’ll make it inside the Conference secure sone to heckle the Prime Minister as previously managed for both Truss and May, though recent Net Zero announcements have probably raised the stakes.

For anyone who does make it inside the secure zone, the remight not be the greatest number of sitting MPs and Lords in attendance, but this is the Conference where there will be the highest concentration of Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs). After all, selections for seats are ongoing and plum picks are still to be had – and this could be the last gathering of the party if next year’s election comes in May. We should all be mindful too that while the polls are bad, that could change, and the ConservativeParty could still form, on its own, HM Government for the next term.

There is a new King’s Speech, the Autumn Statement, by-elections and potential policy shifts all in the offing over the next few months. Sunak will hope that Conference is one of the easier engagements of the season, but he is not without his detractors within the party as the events of last year proved. While Sunak seems safe for now, some Conservatives have already resigned themselves to a loss that will open up the party to a fight for its future after the General Election. Sunak and his allies will hope to keep the party faithful focused on winning upcoming votes in Mid-Beds andTamworth, and convincing us all that he and the Tories are still in charge and in contention.