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12 October 2023

The Tories needed to win conference season – but they lost it

For the first time since 1996, this looked like a Labour opposition destined for election victory.

By David Gauke

The Conservatives needed to win this conference season. We are late in the parliament, we began the autumn with Labour holding a commanding poll lead and Tory morale was low. The Prime Minister had decided he was going to take a bolder approach and truly set out what he was about. The public rarely pays much attention to politics but now was an opportunity to make a difference.

A difference has been made but from a Conservative perspective it is not a positive one. The Tories had a poor conference, Labour a very successful one. The scale of the disparity was greater than at any time since… well, just last year. But if we ignore the Liz Truss implosion, one would have to go back to Tony Blair’s pomp.

The Conservatives spent the first three days of their conference looking like a right-wing fringe party. Only on the fourth day was Rishi Sunak the most prominent voice. Unfortunately, this did not do the Conservatives much good. He needed to distance himself from the fiscal irresponsibility of Truss and the general irresponsibility of Boris Johnson but ducked the opportunity. Instead he indiscriminately trashed the record of all Conservative governments since 1993, framing them as short-termist and unserious.

Putting aside the fact he has antagonised generations of former ministers, there are problems with this approach. Ed Miliband’s criticisms of the Blair-Brown governments – often ill-targeted and uncombined with a compelling vision of his own – made it easier for those of us who were Labour’s opponents to dismiss the party’s record in office as one long mistake. But, above all, if you are going to make the case that you lead a long-termist and serious government, it does not help if your principal announcement is a hurried, opportunistic policy that unravels within hours.

There might be a case for scrapping HS2 and replacing it with a programme of smaller transport infrastructure projects but Sunak and the small team around him did not do the work necessary to announce such a policy. Nor would it have been possible for a small team in the time available to do this work. Being forced to concede five days after the announcement that the list of replacement projects was merely “illustrative” was truly humiliating for someone who has a reputation for being on top of the detail. Not to spare the Prime Minister from wounding but deserved criticism, it was behaviour one might have expected from Johnson.

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[See also: No 10 strategists are wrong to think Keir Starmer is weak]

There is a public appetite for a change in how we do politics, as evidenced by the fact both party leaders are trying to embody that change. On the basis of these past two conferences, this is a contest Keir Starmer is winning easily. Neither leader is a natural radical or blessed with a charisma that separates them from conventional politicians. But Sunak has left it too late to make a break from the Johnson and Truss regimes and, in the former case, was too closely associated with it. If his conference speech was supposed to provide a gust of fresh air to put wind into the Tory sails, it simply blew them towards the rocks.

Starmer can at least point to the indisputable fact he has taken on and changed his party. The standing ovation he won for asserting that Israel is entitled to defend itself shows how much Labour has changed for the better since the Corbyn era.

Unlike Sunak, Starmer has been willing to condemn wholeheartedly what went immediately before him. Sunak’s failure to do so within his own party means that Labour will keep attacking Truss and Johnson (both of whom appeared to feature in Labour speeches as prominently as the current Prime Minister) and tie them to the current Conservative Party.

Politically, Starmer has demonstrated greater willingness to move onto the centre ground than Sunak. He made a direct appeal to Tory voters who “look in horror” as the party descends into “the murky waters of populism and conspiracy”, arguing that “if you feel we need a party that conserves, that fights for union, our environment, rule of law… let me tell you, Britain already has one. It’s this Labour Party.”

There was recognition of the importance of a thriving private sector, fiscal responsibility and the limits of the state. Labour’s ambitions for planning reform, an industrial strategy and a more pragmatic approach to Brexit are helping to win over business, as is the widespread view that Rachel Reeves is a credible chancellor-in-waiting. It was, nonetheless, the speech of someone on the centre left, enthusiastic about stronger employment rights and unashamedly pitching to “working people”.  

There remain unresolved tensions. The UK’s fiscal situation is deteriorating as its debt interest bill rises through higher gilt yields. It will become increasingly obvious that taxes will have to go up. Miliband’s £28bn Green Prosperity Plan will likely never be affordable. Labour’s employment rights agenda – the expansion of collective bargaining, full rights for workers from day one and the abolition of zero-hour contracts – will cause tensions with business in time. Delivering planning reform is much harder than promising it. Labour’s Brexit policy is too timid to be transformative.

All of this means that a Starmer government will be beset with difficulties – there will not be much of a feel-good factor. But for the first time since 1996, this looked like a Labour opposition destined for election victory. The Tories needed a good conference season; it was Labour who got it.

[See also: It’s Rachel Reeves’s party now]

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