9 October 2023

In the battle of the conferences, Labour seems to be on top


Traditionally, at least in recent years, the Labour Party Conference has been a more fractious affair than its more ruthlessly stage-managed Conservative counterpart. But could this year buck that trend?

The prospect of power often has a disciplinary effect, just as the prospect of losing it has the opposite. And with no sign of even the normal, transitory post-conference poll bump for the Tories and a smashing win in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, power must now seem to Labour a very realistic prospect indeed.

Sir Keir Starmer still faces serious problems, of course. Most obviously, the gulf between what he and Rachel Reeves believe to be possible given the abysmal fiscal circumstances they will inherit if they win in 2024 and the hopes and expectations of his activists, keen to start rolling back 13 years of ‘Tory cuts’.

But he will probably be able to keep a lid on that, at least this side of the election. The real danger lies in what happens after it. If he plays it safe and runs on a thin manifesto, his backbenchers may not feel themselves bound to any broader vision he tries to devise from Number Ten – especially once the accumulated disappointments of office start to bite.

We shall have to see what this week holds. But having recently returned from the Conservatives’ gathering in Manchester, Labour would be hard-pressed to match the sheer weirdness of the vibe there.

Rishi Sunak is, again, blessed by the comparison with his immediate predecessor. Last year’s conference in Birmingham was dominated by the unfolding collapse of Liz Truss’s premiership. As I observed at the time, she seemed to have reached the lethal point where people’s thoughts were straying past her – a far more dangerous position than being hated. 

Her successor now seems to be in a similar boat. There is no prospect of a challenge to his leadership, not least because nobody wants to seize the crown with only a year to go until an election and with the party miles behind in the polls.

But precious few people in Manchester really think the Prime Minister can salvage the Tory position and win that fifth term, and that inevitably has a knock-on effect on his authority.

Thus, there was a remarkable degree of freelancing on the part of ministers. Michael Gove caught people’s attention by offering his personal views on tax cuts, despite sitting in the Cabinet. Rachel Maclean, the Housing Minister, agreed with me on a ConservativeHome panel that the government should look again at full-fat planning reform – definitely not a view signed off by Number Ten.

And then, of course, you had Liz Truss addressing a packed-out ‘Rally for Growth’.

It is remarkable that the former prime minister is once again the face of libertarian conservatism. If we’re honest, it is also an indictment of that wing of the party. To make somebody so bad at politics the leader of your cause once may look like carelessness; to do so twice, with all the added baggage of her disastrous first attempt, looks like desperation.

Truss’s pitch remains both as strong and as weak as it ever was. Growth is indeed essential, and there is a desperate need for the country to break out of the current consensus which has locked it into a toxic combination of low wages and high prices.

But the keys to unlocking real growth – namely, building lots of houses and infrastructure – remain deeply unpopular with Tory voters, whilst her headline focus on a smaller state is deeply at odds with public opinion, which in the wake of the pandemic is better-disposed to big government than ever. That doesn’t mean a breakout can’t be done. But it would require much more political skill, strategic ruthlessness, and effective communication than Truss is capable of. 

But if the various Tory tribes are clamouring to create an ideological agenda for the party, it is in part because there is a void where one should be. Wednesday’s conference speech was Sunak’s chance to finally give his party and the nation a clear idea of who he was and where he wants to take us, and he fluffed it.

Not that it wasn’t personal. Indeed, his wife’s introductory remarks lent a decidedly American tone to proceedings that fit with his decidedly presidential style. 

But that serving of oratorical high-fructose corn syrup couldn’t make up for the fact that his actual proposals were a random collection of policies with no obvious through-line at all. There is nothing connecting banning smoking, scrapping HS2, and overhauling high-school qualifications (again) than the personal whims of the Prime Minister.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the really weird part was the total dissonance between that thin gruel and the pose Sunak tried to strike as the tough-minded long-termist prepared to tell hard truths. To the extent that he has a discernible vision – the United Kingdom as a high-powered science and technology hub – he is obviously unwilling to do the hard graft (planning reform) needed to bring it about.

Should the Conservatives lose the next election, the party will face a long night of the soul over how it managed to spend so many years in office and have so little to show for it. Truss and her allies have one explanation, Danny Kruger and his another. What will Sunak and his supporters have to add to that debate? On the evidence of last week, very little.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.