MANCHESTER, United Kingdom: Britain´s ruling Conservatives opened their annual conference on Sunday, with the party´s chairman conceding they were “the underdogs” heading into a general election expected next year amid widespread economic woes.
The gathering in Manchester, northwest England, will be Prime Minister Rishi Sunak´s first since he became Tory leader last October, and likely the last before the election due by January 2025 at the latest.
He is seeking to use the event to rejuvenate his beleaguered party -- in power since 2010 -- and set out a broader, more populist, policy agenda after nearly a year of trying to stabilise the economy.
The former finance minister inherited decades-high inflation and minimal economic growth -- which have helped create the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation -- after taking the reins from much-maligned predecessors Liz Truss and Boris Johnson.
The dire situation has allowed the main Labour opposition, which starts its yearly conference in Liverpool next Sunday, to open up double-digit poll leads and ready itself for a return to government.
Conservative party chairman Greg Hands kicked off the four days of political events with an early afternoon main stage address heavy on realism. “This is likely to be a general election where the Conservatives enter as the underdogs,” Hands told the audience.
“And I know in recent years, you will have had difficult conversations with voters. I certainly have,” he added, before attacking Labour´s record in local and regional governance.
Recently appointed Defence Secretary Grant Shapps -- back from a midweek visit to Ukraine -- and Foreign Secretary James Cleverly also maintained the partisan attacks in speeches, as the looming election increasingly dominates.
Cleverly simultaneously released a slickly-produced video on social media showcasing his various foreign travels -- alongside narrated criticism of Labour -- under the headline “Britain is back”.
Monday´s headline speakers include finance minister Jeremy Hunt, while Tuesday will feature hardline interior minister Suella Braverman. Sunak will close the conference with his speech on Wednesday lunchtime.
Meanwhile ministers, Tory big-hitters, activists, commentators and others will feature in various fringe events. They include ex-prime minister Truss, whose only conference as Conservative leader last year was overshadowed by her disastrous mini-budget unveiled less than two weeks earlier.
It rattled financial markets and its impact continues to be felt across the economy, as well as in polling about trust in the Conservatives´ handling of it. Largely unrepentant, Truss will host a “Great British Growth Rally” Monday, pushing her discredited tax-slashing agenda alongside several other former ministers.
Amid widespread Tory dismay at record post-WWII tax levels, dozens of senior MPs -- including Truss -- revealed Friday they have signed a pledge not to vote for Hunt´s November mini-budget if it contains any rates increases.
Sunak insisted in a pre-conference BBC interview on Sunday that reducing inflation would be “the best tax cut that I can deliver”. Lauding his inflation-first approach as “deeply Conservative”, he claimed it followed in the footsteps of 1980s Tory leader Margaret Thatcher, who is still revered across the party.
Another high-profile ex-leader, Johnson, is noticeably absent from the conference´s agenda. He resigned as a Conservative MP in June before being ousted by lawmakers who had found he deliberately misled them during the “Partygate” scandal.
Sunak has spent much of the past year trying to repair his party´s image after Johnson´s tumultuous three-year tenure and Truss´s record-breaking short and damaging stint in power. The Tories have been trailing Labour by as much as 28 points in polls in that time, but several recent surveys have showed the gap narrowing.
One by Opinium published on Sunday had the lead cut to 10 percentage points. That has coincided with a recent strategy shift intended to draw clear dividing lines with Labour.
On Friday, Sunak unveiled plans to “support drivers” and push back on supposed “anti-car measures” introduced by local authorities in the name of environmental protection. That followed last week´s controversial softening of green policies aimed at achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The UK leader is also reportedly poised to cancel a costly new high-speed train line between Birmingham and Manchester, while other shake-ups -- to education policy and inheritance tax -- are also rumoured. “I have a good sense of what the British people´s priorities are. I´m going to set about delivering for them,” Sunak said on Sunday.