Sunak shakes up Conservatives but it may not help him win elections
This was the first annual party conference the Indian-origin Sunak addressed as prime minister and it is also likely to be his last as he may lose the next elections
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivered the most important speech of his political career at the Conservative Party’s annual conference on Wednesday (October 4), where he effectively launched his campaign for re-election in the next general election. He pitched himself as the face of change for a party which has seen five prime ministers in 13 years – three in just the last 16 months – in an attempt to rejuvenate battle-weary Tories.
This was the first annual party conference that the Indian-origin Sunak addressed as prime minister, not having completed one year in Downing Street yet. And it is also likely to be his last as the country in all probability will go to polls before the annual conference next year, and he is expected to lose as the Conservative party’s ratings in the opinion polls have remained steadily behind the Opposition Labour Party’s by almost 20 points.
Introduced by his Indian-national heiress wife Akshata Murthy, daughter of NR Narayana Murthy, co-founder of tech giant Infosys, Sunak gave an emotional speech thanking his grandparents for making the move from India and East Africa to Britain and giving him the opportunity to become prime minister in just three generations. Sunak recounted how his maternal grandfather accompanied him to the famous Houses of Parliament on his first day as MP less than a decade ago, and called-up his first landlady to tell her how much his grandson had achieved.
Describing himself as the first ‘British Asian’ and not British Indian prime minister of the UK not to alienate Conservative voters from the rest of the sub-continent, Sunak thanked the voters in his constituency of Richmond in Yorkshire for not letting his colour or ethnicity matter when choosing their MP. Having already made much of being the son of a doctor and a pharmacist during his campaign to become leader of the Conservative party last year, Sunak again took the opportunity to thank his parents for instilling a work ethic in him that coincided with the values of the Tory party.
Akshata, in one of her rare public speeches, introduced Sunak as her “best friend” who was honest, hardworking and had integrity, but said the word that described him the best was “aspiration”. Dressed in a pink trouser suit, the millionairess claimed her husband had no idea what she was going to say, but in a rehearsed manner gave a personal account of how they met 14 years ago, what a great father ‘Rishi’ was to their two daughters and how he loved watching cheesy rom-coms.
Unlike in previous years, the atmosphere at the four-day Party Conference was drab and unenthused. Many MPs did not come as they do not plan to stand in the next election and those backbenchers who did attend left early worried about the cost of staying in Manchester hotels for four days at their own expense. Generally, grassroots members do not matter so much at the Conservative Party conference as this is an event for corporates to mingle with ministers.
A fractured party
More importantly, the party conference is also a time for cabinet ministers to put themselves in the headlines and pitch for the top job. This was more evident this time than in previous years, as many Conservatives see Sunak as an accidental prime minister who has been put in Downing Street by a group of MPs and not by Tory members or general voters.
Sunak is struggling to hold his fractured party together after the turmoil of the last 18 months. From the first day of the conference all attempts to put up a united front collapsed into rival groups battling over tax-cuts, culture wars and fights to be the next Tory leader. Former Prime Minister Liz Truss, Sunak’s predecessor, put on a fringe event that was well-attended by senior Tory MPs who were close to her predecessor Boris Johnson.
Truss gave a short speech reiterating tax cuts, particularly corporation tax to help businesses, unfazed by the fact that it was her mini-budget that had sent the markets into free-fall and she was forced to resign from the prime ministership after just 49 days. In last year’s leadership election between Truss and Sunak, Truss had emerged the winner thanks to the votes from the Conservative members. She still retains their support and in any future leadership challenge members’ votes will be a deciding factor.
Sunak, who was brought in to No 10 as the market’s choice to steady the ship and manage the economy, would like to cut taxes but doesn’t want to risk another reaction like last Autumn. He told the party conference that “the best tax cut we can give working people is to halve inflation”.
Suella Braverman, Sunak’s home secretary, also has her eye on the top job and placed herself as the standard bearer of the Conservative right by warning that a ‘hurricane’ of mass migration was hurtling towards Britain. Ironically, the Indian-origin Braverman has been the strongest critic of immigration. “The wind of change that carried my own parents across the globe in the 20th century was a mere gust compared with the hurricane that is coming,” said Braverman in a populist speech to the conference.
Tory civil war
The Tories slogan for this conference and the next general election is ‘Long-term Decisions For A Brighter Future’, and Sunak’s main announcement at the gathering was to scrap the northern leg of HS2, a flagship national rail project that would help in levelling-up north England with the affluent south of the country. However, instead of uniting his party, Sunak unleashed a Tory civil war with his long-term decision.
Immediately after the announcement, former Conservative prime minister David Cameron led a torrent of criticism against the scrapping claiming it had been done without consulting the cabinet, parliament, local councils or Network Rail and threw away “15 years of cross-party consensus, sustained over six administrations and would make it much harder to build consensus for any future long-term projects”.
It remains to be seen in the coming days whether the 36 billion pounds of savings the exchequer will make and which Sunak has promised to use to fund a number of other transport schemes described as ‘Network North’ will dampen the anger of Conservative voters particularly in the Red Wall constituencies of north England.
However, if Sunak wanted to shake up the Conservative Party, that he certainly did but will they all approve of the change – the vote is still out on that!