Five key takeaways from the Conservative Party conference

Divisive speeches on immigration and gender issues have prompted consternation among the party's centrists

Conservative Party conference
Rishi Sunak attempted to reset his premiership by focusing on issues that divide his party as well as the country
(Image credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak may have hoped that this year's Conservative Party conference would focus on his new policies on net zero and motorists, but it was the future of HS2 that dominated the agenda in Manchester.

It is likely that "there wasn't a grand plan in Downing Street" for the conference to be "overwhelmed" by the controversial high-speed rail link, said the BBC's chief political correspondent Henry Zeffman, "but make no mistake: that is what's happened".

But amid "the spectacle of a prime minister trying in vain not to talk about HS2 before his big speech", there are other numerous key stories emerging, said Sky News's deputy political editor Sam Coates. Not least the "existential questions about what the next iteration of the Conservative Party stands for".

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Rishi's reset

"We’ve had 30 years of a political system which incentivises the easy decision, not the right one," Sunak said in his hour-long keynote speech to the conference. "Thirty years of vested interests standing in the way of change. Thirty years of rhetorical ambition which achieves little more than a short-term headline."

The speech was an "attempt to reframe his administration", said Bloomberg's Joe Mayes and Emily Ashton, that "reflects both the 20-point deficit to the opposition Labour Party in opinion polls and the lack of time to turn it around".

But "the thing that stood out about the prime minister's speech was he wasn't unveiling a whole bunch of guaranteed crowd pleasers", said the BBC's political editor Chris Mason. The scrapping of the HS2 Manchester link and the ban on smoking for the next generation are "ideas that provoke and divide within the Conservative Party – let alone the wider country".

"It is a big ask for the PM to prove he is the 'change candidate' after 13 Tory years," agreed The Sun. "But he genuinely believes it."

A shift to the right

From the Tory faithful "embracing the Liz Truss agenda" to "senior figures echoing and legitimising the tropes, language and politics of Donald Trump" to "a home secretary mobbed by activists wanting selfies", the "centre of gravity of the Tory party" is changing, said Coates. "Key figures" are now "invoking the membership to abandon the centre ground," he said. 

"Labour may revel in its enemy's slide towards oblivion," said Polly Toynbee in The Guardian. "The further right the Tories go, the more beatable they look in the short term." 

However, she added, Labour "should be careful what it wishes for… When the Tory civil war begins in earnest post-election, the moderate platoon looks frighteningly invisible."

Tough immigration stance

The home secretary, Suella Braverman, "appealed to the party's hard right", said The New York Times, with a "fiery address" that warned of an imminent "hurricane" of immigration. 

Braverman, whose own parents came to the UK from Kenya and Mauritius in the 1960s, used her speech at the conference to warn that "unprecedented" migration is "one of the most powerful forces reshaping our world".

Following the speech, Braverman's cabinet colleague Grant Shapps was asked about comparisons that have been made to former Tory minister Enoch Powell's infamous "rivers of blood" speech, which was widely blamed for inflaming racial tensions in the 1960s.  

Shapps replied that the home secretary's rhetoric was "certainly no Enoch Powell situation" and, despite the apparent unease it had caused some senior Conservatives, he insisted that Braverman was "absolutely correct" to warn about the scale of the global movement of people.

Gender and trans issues

This week, policies on gender and trans people issues have "dominated announcements by ministers", said the Financial Times, "sparking a backlash among Tory MPs anxious about the party's deepening politicisation of the subject".

Six cabinet ministers discussed trans and gender issues at the podium in a signal that the topic is likely to be a "prominent theme" in the Tories' campaign leading up to the next general election, the paper added.

Yet some Tory ministers think the issue could cast the party in a "hostile light" and would distract from positive efforts to ease the cost of living crisis.

One minister said the party should be "compassionate" towards trans people, adding: "It's not an issue that voters notice like pump watch [a scheme to monitor and compare petrol prices], it doesn't come up on the doorstep."

A party that likes to party

People who have not been to the Conservative Party’s annual conference "might assume that the 'conference' bit is what matters", said The Economist. For many Tory members, though, "this is all about the party".

A conference does take place "but all that is a sideshow", the paper said. "The real action goes on in between sessions, as people in blue suits, blue shirts and brogues go to parties, drink white wine and use words such as 'thus' in conversation."

Elsewhere at the event, in a queue for a speech, "one woman looks irritated when they cannot find her name on the list. Look for me, she says, under 'Lady' instead," The Economist reported, adding "it requires a lot of effort and aspiration to appear this out of touch". 

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