The annual Conservative Party Conference last week certainly wasn’t lacking for news-worthy moments. It had it all – from controversial speeches to massive policy shifts to the forced removal of audience members. And that’s without even mentioning Priti Patel and Nigel Farage dancing together. Here are six key moments that sum up an extraordinary few days.
6. The Return of Liz Truss
A speech on Economics from a Prime Minister who crashed the economy within a month of taking office might not be expected to draw much of a crowd, but Liz Truss managed to completely pack out her auditorium, even leaving crowds of disappointed party members queuing outside.
Her talk began with a rather bizarre choice to sing the praises of GB News, just days after the channel’s latest scandal, where it received thousands of complaints and an Ofcom investigation after broadcasting presenter Laurence Fox’s misogynistic comments on political journalist Ava Evans.
The address went on to lay out her economic vision for the country, centred around “axing the tax, cutting the bills, and building the houses.” There were echoes of Trump throughout the talk, from her plea to increase fracking to the rather obvious reference in her calls to “Make Britain Grow Again.”
The whole speech had an air of disruption and mischief, with both the timing and the content of her speech seemingly designed to undermine the party leadership. The start of her address was scheduled just 90 minutes before the Chancellors’ speech on the main stage on the other side of the Conference, and her repeated calls for massive tax cuts in the Autumn statement directly oppose Hunt, who ruled this out earlier in the month.
5. The art of the straw man
Ok, this may be more of a theme than a moment, but I would be remiss to write a review of the Conference without pointing out the multiple instances of senior ministers using the straw man technique, in which they effectively invent policies that Labour or some other sinister force supposedly wants to inflict upon the public, and then promise to save us from such a fate.
In Transport Secretary Mark Harper’s speech, he drew heavily on conspiracy theories around ’15 minute cities’. The policy is a fairly innocuous urban planning concept designed to provide people in cities all of the services they need within a 15-minute walk, and yet the idea has been taken up by fringe conspiracists on the internet who see it as a government ploy to control people’s movements. It was therefore surprising to see Harper drawing on this vernacular in his speech – “what is sinister and what we shouldn’t tolerate is the idea that local councils can decide how often you go to the shops and that they ration who uses the roads and when, and they police it all with CCTV.” There is no evidence that any council or any party has or is planning to suggest any measure such as these.
Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero Claire Coutinho used her speech to remark how “it’s no wonder Labour seems so relaxed about taxing meat.” This is a repeat of the myth that Starmer’s party want to impose a meat tax as part of their green policy, which has been flat-out denied by Labour, and when questioned about this claim on Sky News, Coutinho provided nothing to support her claim.
Green MP Caroline Lucas, in reference to these claims and others at the Conference, told Sky News that a “dishonesty epidemic is infecting the Tory Party.”
4. The smoking ban
He may have in the past been referred to as a small-state Conservative, but Rishi Sunak used the party Conference to launch one of the biggest government interventions in public health in recent memory.
The plans laid out by Sunak in his speech would gradually phase out cigarette sales completely, by raising the legal age of smoking year on year. This would mean that, for example, a 14-year-old now, would never be able to legally buy a cigarette. The plans are modelled on the New Zealand system, and would surely have positive effects on public health and air pollution.
The policy has cross-bench appeal, with Labour declaring their support for the move.
The proposal has been broadly popular, but it’s been criticised by the hardline non-interventionists of the party, including Liz Truss who called the ban “illiberal” and “anti-conservative.” Some have also pointed out Sunak’s earlier position on government anti-obesity strategy, where he took a relaxed approach to regulation and supported “people’s right to choose.”
3. Rishi Sunak transphobic?
When he began his premiership last October, Sunak was widely referred to as the ‘grown up in the room’, a serious finance guy to come in and tackle the truly big issues. In the past, he rarely got involved in the culture wars, but the nearer we get to the election, and as the situation gets more desperate for the Tories, he appears to be leaning more and more into the rhetoric of the hard-right.
As part of his keynote speech, the Prime Minister announced to a cheering crowd that “a man is a man and a woman is a woman, that’s just common sense”, and that “we shouldn’t be bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be.”
Clearly, the Conservatives have identified transgender issues as resonating with their base, because the Conference also saw Home Secretary Suella Braverman announcing she would forbid sex offenders from changing gender and Health Secretary Steve Barclay saying he would ban trans women from female NHS wards.
The comments have sparked a major backlash, with Belgium’s trans deputy Prime Minister labelling the British PM a “bully”. Tim Hopkins, director of the Equality Network, compared Sunak’s comments to Thatcher’s views on LGBT issues, saying that “she thought attacking gay people would keep the Tories in power, but in the longer run it just made them look… like the nasty party. The same will happen here.”
2. Suella Braverman’s speech
The Home Secretary’s 28-minute address to the Conference had enough note-worthy moments to make a whole other list in and of itself. She hit on familiar themes of anti-immigration and anti-‘wokeness’, but escalated her rhetoric even further than she has before.
She went on to make the bold statement that “multiculturalism has failed”, this coming from, as many have pointed out, a second-generation immigrant in one of the most powerful positions in the country, serving the nation’s first British Asian Prime Minister. This statement may have been a step too far for the Rishi Sunak, who later refused to support it in a BBC interview.
The Home Secretary later described “gender ideology” as “poison”, at which point Andrew Boff, a prominent and gay Conservative politician in the audience, quietly replied with “there’s no such thing as gender ideology.” He was then promptly removed from the Conference by police. It should be noted that afterwards, Braverman said that while Boff’s views were “silly”, he should “be forgiven and let back into the conference.”
While being heavy on the provocative language, the speech was light on new policy.
The expected statement on the HS2 project cast a long shadow over the conference, and after avoiding questions about it all week, Rishi Sunak used his keynote speech to finally publicly announce the cancellation of the scheme’s Birmingham to Manchester leg.
Sunak promised that the £36 billion in savings would be spread across hundreds of transport schemes throughout the North and the Midlands.
An estimated £2.3 billion had already been spent on the now-cancelled leg, adding to the already massive sunk costs involved for the flagship project for the government’s ‘levelling up’ policy. For more on how and why HS2 went so wrong, you can read our article here.
Many in the North see this as the latest example of Westminster not caring about the area, not least the Mayor of Greater Manchester, who accused the government of viewing Northerners as “second-class citizens.” It surely didn’t help that the Conference at which Sunak announced the cancellation of the project’s leg to Manchester, was itself, held in Manchester.