Sunak’s Tories Worry Reset Fell Short of UK Election Turnaround

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak entered Britain’s political party conference season promising a reset to rejuvenate his governing Conservatives and keep alive distant hopes of winning the next general election.

(Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak entered Britain’s political party conference season promising a reset to rejuvenate his governing Conservatives and keep alive distant hopes of winning the next general election.

Two weeks on, some Tory members are more worried than ever about their prospects.

The convention in Manchester, north-west England, was dominated by the premier’s contentious decision to cancel an expensive high speed rail project to that city. By contrast, the opposition Labour Party came through their conference in nearby Liverpool relatively unscathed. 

Next week, Sunak faces another test: parliamentary special elections in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire — two safe Conservative seats that the party privately expects to hold. In 2019, they won them with majorities approaching 20,000 and 25,000 respectively. If they lose either, Tory Members of Parliament will really begin to fear the worst, one said. 

Sunak is steadily running out of time and chances to close the gap on Labour, who have enjoyed a double-digit polling lead over the Tories for over a year. The premier must call a national vote by January 2025, but on Friday he sank to his lowest approval rating in a YouGov survey for the Times. The same poll gave Labour a 23-point lead, up two points in a week.

Any Tories hoping October’s conferences would herald a turnaround have been disappointed. Requesting anonymity discussing their private views, several lawmakers and advisers told Bloomberg that Labour leader Keir Starmer fared better. 

Doubts are already creeping in about Sunak’s approach, which saw him make a series of scattergun policy announcements designed to capture voters’ attention. One Tory warned Sunak had chosen issues of interest to himself that would not be game-changers for voters.

Sunak’s three main conference offerings were to scrap the HS2 high speed rail project’s northern leg, a pledge to phase out smoking, and proposed changes to exams for teenagers. They followed a recent promise to slow down the pace of green policies to decarbonize Britain. 

The policies lacked a coherent political message, focused on niche areas unlikely to win many votes, and turned the conference into a wasted opportunity, a Tory lawmaker said. Particularly worrying for another MP was that promises to replace HS2 with a raft of local transport projects quickly unraveled when Sunak conceded the list was only “illustrative.” That risked looking chaotic and alienating voters in those areas, they warned.

The announcements suggested Sunak had over-centralized his operation, and should take more advice from Cabinet colleagues rather than try to fight the election in a presidential style, the lawmaker said. Ministers expressed private annoyance that their contributions are not valued, with one calling a Cabinet meeting on HS2 a rubber-stamping exercise. Another said ministers had merely nodded through the green reforms.

By contrast, Labour is on a high after its convention, which offered little in the way of headline announcements, but built on Starmer’s pitch of pragmatic policies that he says can “get Britain’s future back.” The Labour leader turned two possible pitfalls — the conflict in Israel and an on-stage confrontation with a protester — into an advantage, illustrating how he’s changed the party since the tenure of his left-wing predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.

Still, Labour’s strategists are guarding against complacency. One told a private dinner with business figures last week that Starmer faces an uphill task to win the election because he needs the most dramatic turnaround since the Second World War. They also suggested this would be the last set-piece political event that Labour could get away with not unveiling more detailed and ambitious policies.

A Labour staffer agreed, rating their conference as medium-to-good, compared to a medium-to-bad week for the Tories. They said they were surprised Starmer didn’t make more of a retail offer to voters. A representative of a FTSE 100 company said business was keen on Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves, but warned Labour that a lack of policy clarity over and backtracking on a commitment to spend £28 billion ($34 billion) on green energy could breed uncertainty.

Starmer has “the right diagnosis of what the public are looking for,” Tom Lubbock, co-founder of the pollster JL Partners, told Bloomberg. Nevertheless, his speech “lacked the substance to cut through in a Clause 4-style moment,” he said, referring to when former prime minister Tony Blair rewrote the party rulebook to end Labour’s commitment to public ownership of key industries, a seismic moment on his own path to Number 10.

A Labour adviser said the main message from their conference was more subtle: it was an attempt to define itself as the only party that could fix the major problems the country faces. Focusing on home ownership, economic growth and the National Health Service was important not just because they’re things voters care about, but also because they’re weak points in the Tory record, they said.

Sunak can’t build houses at pace because of Tory opposition to planning reform, the aide said. He can’t be ambitious on net zero or infrastructure because of internal party politics, and he can’t take tough calls on reforming the NHS because that’s historically been dangerous ground for Conservatives, the aide said. 

In contrast, a Labour official said Starmer was beginning to define himself as a politician grounded in two principles: aspiration and the desire to conserve — traditionally Conservative values that the opposition believes the governing party has abandoned.

Reflecting the sense that Labour is in the ascendancy, a Conservative strategist said they noticed an up-tick in phone calls from possible future leadership contenders in the days after their conference. Others spent the period offering their services to businesses post-election, including some who haven’t publicly announced their intention to quit politics. 

Sunak’s clunky conference slogan proclaimed the Tories were making “long-term decisions for a brighter future.” But growing numbers in his party are resigning themselves to that future being outside government.

–With assistance from Joe Mayes, Ellen Milligan and Emily Ashton.

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