Paul Montague-Smith delves into the return of conference season, a precursor to forthcoming elections, with a focus on Rishi Sunak’s challenges, Keir Starmer’s quest for stability, and the Lib Dems’ strategic adjustments.
October is a big month in the political calendar as the party conferences come to a crescendo. This year’s are particularly important for the leaderships as they may well be the last before a general election next year.
Although the hard deadline for the election is January 2025, most people expect it to take place in September or October of next year. Knowing turnout of your core vote is key to winning, Rishi Sunak will probably want to avoid the colder darker, colder months unless he absolutely has to. This year’s conferences are therefore about setting out the parties’ election stalls.
Rishi Sunak is pitching himself as a pragmatic problem solver who recognises both the pressures people are facing and as well as big strategic challenges facing the country, and who will diligently tackle them. His supporters point to the securing of the Windsor Framework agreement on Northern Ireland and the successful renegotiation of the UK’s involvement in the Horizon research programme as examples of his problem-solving skills.
The recent stepping back from commitments around net zero were focused around the potential impact on individuals’ pockets. The review of HS2, where costs are ballooning beyond all expectations, shows his managerial side. Both decisions have cheesed off portions of his parliamentary party in the run up to conference.
On net zero, the justification was that the UK has outperformed against its target and therefore has the wriggle room. But as we head towards 2050, hitting the target is likely to get increasingly difficult. On HS2, while there are claims by some that it is an abandoning of ‘levelling up’, as a Yorkshire MP himself the PM, like many others, would be happy to see the savings invested in other projects like Northern Powerhouse Rail, that might even give the region more of an economic boost than HS2.
The challenge for Rishi Sunak next week Is to convince his party and the public that he is a leader, not just a manager. Expect a focus on two big personal priorities – creating a world class education system and making the UK a world leader in tech and AI.
Unfortunately for him, he has an unsettled party with disgruntled factions and a poor performance record on his self-imposed priorities of economic growth, ‘stopping the boats’ and cutting NHS waiting lists. He faces a tough gig.
Keir Starmer meanwhile needs to do little more than avoid any stumbles or self-inflicted wounds. While he should set out his vision of what a first term Labour government would seek to achieve, he doesn’t yet need to worry about getting into the detail of policy across a wide spectrum, which only provides the opposition and policy experts the opportunity to criticise and identify flaws.
In reality, his conference is about reinforcing the current mood music that is already out there – that the Conservative Government is on its last legs and Labour is now reformed, financially competent, has a vision of a better country and is ready to act on voters’ top concerns – the cost of living and NHS waiting lists.
What of the Liberal Democrats? Well, if you missed the news the other night you may not know that their conference is already done and dusted. It is looking like their strategy is to fight the next election on ultra-local issues, but on national policies they dropped the long-standing commitment to put a penny on income tax, in favour of higher taxes for banks.
Ed Davey suffered a defeat at the hands of delegates, where the proposed abandoning of national house building targets was rejected. The party has published its ‘pre-manifesto’ which you can read here. While they always have to fight for airtime and are largely ignored by media (as they have only 15 MPs), their recent by-election success and uptick in polling could mean that, as in 2010, they may once again become ‘Kingmakers’.