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Your Conservative party conference cheat sheet

Rishi Sunak on day four of the Tory party conference  (Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak on day four of the Tory party conference (Getty Images)

Drunken singalongs with an ex-PM, bad jokes by the cabinet, and Michael Gove getting told off for smoking on the Tory chairman’s hotel balcony. It must be the Tory party conference, this time in Manchester.

Last time in Birmingham, it went very wrong for Liz Truss, as her brief fever dream in power blew up spectacularly. So one positive for Rishi Sunak in his first conference as PM: it wasn’t as bad as that. However, there wasn’t much else to cheer about. The big story was his Government cancelling the high speed rail link to the host city, while his rivals openly touted their right-wing credentials as they jostled for position.

Rishi Sunak delivers his keynote speech (PA)
Rishi Sunak delivers his keynote speech (PA)

Bidding to be the next leader

The Tories haven’t actually lost the next election yet, but everywhere you looked, MPs were speaking with a funny look in their eye, seeming to start campaigns which looked suspiciously like tilts at being the next leader if, and when, Sunak fails. Unlike the more blokey Labour, almost all of the hopefuls are women.

Kemi Badenoch is plausible, using the novel tactic of saying positive things about the country her party have been in charge of for 13 years. The Business Secretary seemed to have arrived ready to repeat how much leaving the EU is seen as an “opportunity” by our allies around the world. It was nice to hear some optimism, said one think tank boss. But hearing her say it a second time, you wondered: was it optimism, or denial of the facts?

Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch delivers a speech during the Conservative Party annual conference (PA)
Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch delivers a speech during the Conservative Party annual conference (PA)

After some time in the wilderness, Priti Patel was among the busiest. On Sunday, she addressed the Conservative Democratic Organisation dinner, praising Nigel Farage. The next night, Patel got even closer to Nigel, with the pair leading singalongs to Robbie Williams and Franki Valli at a wild GB News party.

Farage was in particularly good spirits, with talk he could join the Tories. He lost seven elections as a UKIP candidate, so might like a win for a change, but said he wouldn’t be signing up just yet.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman arrives at the Conservative Party conference (PA)
Home Secretary Suella Braverman arrives at the Conservative Party conference (PA)

Home Secretary Suella Braverman was fairly unassuming at the start, having made a move last week by bashing multiculturalism in America. But then she was everywhere you looked, from a speech at Conservative Friends of Israel fringe to a ‘New Conservatives’ event, held in an unfortunately named bar called Impossible. Braverman built up to a doom-mongering speech to a packed main hall yesterday. She warned that a “hurricane” of immigration was coming to British shores.

Former British Prime Minister Liz Truss (REUTERS)
Former British Prime Minister Liz Truss (REUTERS)

Elsewhere, the unembarrassable Liz Truss seems to think she could still have a comeback in her yet, bringing a not-very-subtle ‘Make Britain Grow Again’ sign along for her rally. Tory conference is an alternate reality where Truss has some fans, but it still felt like most visitors were there out of curiosity rather than genuine support. Background figures like Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho, Miriam Cates and Gillian Keegan did noticeable stints in the media tents, and Penny Mordaunt still has a big following.

Rishi eyes election

Despite the noise from pretenders, Rishi Sunak was there to kick off his election campaign, with his “five priorities” plastered on every available surface (though one smart wag noticed they’d spelt it “prorities”). Speaking on the first night, Sunak was focused on the 2024 vote, and gave a hint of his tactics, with two personal attacks on Keir Starmer in three minutes. The PM and his team are hoping that the public find the Labour leader uninspiring, but their jibes, including a “stop the Rayner” quip, felt lame.

Rishi Sunak made his keynote speech to the Conservative conference in Manchester (Danny Lawson/PA) (PA Wire)
Rishi Sunak made his keynote speech to the Conservative conference in Manchester (Danny Lawson/PA) (PA Wire)

Sunak is hoping to paint Sir Keir as a middle-class Londoner out of touch with real life. However, as perhaps our richest-ever PM, it’s a tough look for him to pull off. And while he projects an image of competence, Sunak’s appearances at events didn’t hugely catch the imagination. As one of his team said behind the scenes, the PM’s favourite type of public appearance is the audience Q&A – he did two closed ones on Sunday. In the end, his keynote speech worked fine (he didn’t lose his voice), introduced by his wife Akshata, who called him her “best friend”. Sunak announced a raft of policies, including banning smoking for the next generation and an A-level shake up.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with his wife Akshata Murty on stage at the end of his keynote speech (PA)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with his wife Akshata Murty on stage at the end of his keynote speech (PA)

The lack of certainty around brand Rishi was on show in the merchandise available in the Conservative party shop. In the pomp of Boris Johnson, several Bojo items were up for sale. This time, there was Churchill, Thatcher and even David Cameron swag, but none featuring Sunak, their unelected successor. Instead, there was Keir-bashing on a pair of flip flops. Will it be enough?

Flip flops and Toby jugs (Robbie Griffiths)
Flip flops and Toby jugs (Robbie Griffiths)

Anti-announcements

After more than a decade in power, the Tories have a novel new strategy: big announcements that they aren’t doing things. Most notable of course was HS2, the very expensive train line, whose leg from Birmingham to Manchester was finally scrapped after days of speculation in Sunak’s speech. Given many attendees got the slow train from London, it was a bad look, and it went down even worse with some Mancunians. In a pub near the conference compound, locals could be overheard expressing anger that the north was being snubbed again. Lee Anderson making a dig at Bradford didn’t help win back the fabled red wall.

An aerial view of HS2's site at Euston (PA Media)
An aerial view of HS2's site at Euston (PA Media)

As well as HS2, there are plenty of other things the Tories have pledged they won’t be doing. Sunak has also slowed down the green transition and said he can’t promise to cut taxes. Instead of announcing anything proactive, a preferred tactic was to hit out at Labour plans that don’t really exist. Talk of an apocryphal “meat tax” was everywhere, as was discussion of “15-minute cities”, which have been conflated with the idea that people would be forced to shop in their local areas. The fact that neither are going to happen didn’t stop MPs like Claire Coutinho and Andrew Bowie claiming they might be. Outside, a doctors’ strike-come-protest reminded some that there were real issues outside the conference centre.

Doctors and medical staff from the British Medical Association (BMA) stage a protest outside the Mancheser Library during the Conservative Party annual conference (Peter Byrne/PA Wire)
Doctors and medical staff from the British Medical Association (BMA) stage a protest outside the Mancheser Library during the Conservative Party annual conference (Peter Byrne/PA Wire)

A sense of frustration at opportunities missed was in the air, with the titles of panel sessions telling a story. “What have the Tories ever done for us?” asked one, while another wondered: “Has Brexit failed?” In one policy forum on Monday, a frustrated local member reminded listeners it had been eight years since the Tories won the 2015 election, and before that they’d led the coalition for a further five. “Why are we coming to the party so late?” he said, bemoaning the stagnation. At least it isn’t as bad as 1996, said Jacob Rees Mogg hopefully, as the party have more policies now.

Jacob Rees-Mogg speaks on stage at the Tory conference (REUTERS)
Jacob Rees-Mogg speaks on stage at the Tory conference (REUTERS)

Right wing rising

While there is some humour at the absurdity around, there’s also a less pleasant whiff in the air. Walking around the conference hall, the voice of Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride could be heard decrying “deadbeat dads” in his televised speech in the main hall. The phrase would have once been notable rhetoric, but it was background noise compared to some of the other right-wing messaging.

Mel Stride, Work and Pensions Secretary, speaking at the Conservative Party conference (Danny Lawson/PA) (PA Wire)
Mel Stride, Work and Pensions Secretary, speaking at the Conservative Party conference (Danny Lawson/PA) (PA Wire)

Tory London mayoral candidate Susan Hall said many of London’s Jewish people were “frightened” of Sadiq Khan and was accused of using “dog whistling” messages against the Muslim community. Elsewhere, discussing deserving and undeserving migration, deputy party chairman Lee Anderson said, “It winds me up, and I know it winds Suella up… obviously the illegals”. Anderson also berated the left-wing media, telling a Guardian journalist to get out of the room.

Britain's Conservative Party deputy chairperson Lee Anderson (AFP via Getty Images)
Britain's Conservative Party deputy chairperson Lee Anderson (AFP via Getty Images)

Lowering immigration was under constant discussion and is clearly something that the party think chimes with voters, as per their “Stop the boats” pledge. Braverman was leading the way, getting into her stride on Tuesday with talk of a “hurricane” of mass migration. Her rhetoric was even too much for some Tories and London assembly chair Andrew Boff was kicked out of the hall for heckling during a section on “gender ideology”, accusing Braverman of homophobic slurs.

Throughout, however, their words were backed by supportive media, including young TV station GB News, where many Tory MPs now work as a side job. Priti Patel praised the channel as “the defenders of free speech”. While tough talking does well with supporters at conference, and might help one lucky contender get elected as the next Tory leader some day soon, it remains to be seen whether it will help win the election next year.