This weekend will see the start of Rishi Sunak’s first conference as party leader as the Conservatives head to Manchester. The third leader in three years of conferences and head of a party that has been in power for more than a decade, Sunak is hoping to use this time as a reset, breaking away from Boris Johnson and Liz Truss’ chaotic premierships.
With the slogan ‘long-term decisions for a brighter future’, we can expect to hear a lot about the long-term vision of the PM, who, since arriving at number 10, has been concerned with trying to manage immediate crises.
Likely to dominate discussions at the conference are Sunak’s five key priorities for 2023, revealed earlier this year in the hope that they could be delivered before the approaching general election. These include halving inflation this year; growing the economy and creating better-paid jobs across the country; seeing national debt fall; cutting NHS waiting lists; and passing new laws to stop small migrant boats crossing the Channel.
The most likely to be met is Sunak’s promise to halve the UK’s inflation rate by the end of the year. ONS data shows that inflation stood at 6.7% in August and the Office for Budget Responsibility is expecting inflation to fall to 2.9% by December, significantly lower than the 10% rate seen when Sunak made his ‘Building a Better Future’ New Year speech.
While Chancellor Jeremy Hunt believes the latest figures confirm that the Government’s ‘plan to deal with inflation is working’, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has pointed to research from the OECD that forecasts the UK to have the highest inflation of any major economy this year.
Grow the economy
The pledge to ‘grow the economy’ will be achieved if the economy is bigger in the three-month period between October and December 2023 than it was during the previous quarter (July-September 2023). According to recent data, the economy shrank by 0.5% in July.
Following Sunak’s pledge, debt surpassed GDP for the first time since 1961, before beginning to fall.
NHS waiting times
NHS waiting times are one of the most pressing issues for UK voters right now. The number of patients waiting to start treatment in England has continued to climb since Sunak made his pledge, reaching record levels of 7 million.
Stopping small boats
The number of small boat arrivals to the UK in 2023 reached 20,000 in August, according to Home Office data. 5,000 arrived last month alone. A bill is currently making its way through Parliament with new measures to discourage people from travelling to the UK. However, some believe the measures could be inconsistent with international law.
It’s possible that discontent could surface in response to Sunak’s recent u-turn on major net zero policies. It has been reported that many within the party have been openly critical about the decision. The concerns that have been expressed by big businesses such as Ford and E.On may well also be distinct.
Long-term divisions over HS2 could well play out in Manchester. With such a significant split on the topic, it has been reported that Sunak’s aides fear Tory MPs will ‘be left squabbling over HS2 during fringe events’. It has the potential to dominate discussions, taking away from the party’s efforts to present their vision ahead of a general election. Rumours over the northern leg of HS2 being shelved could pose a problem with the conference’s location, and brings into question Sunak’s commitment to levelling up.