Departing Conservative Party Conference, I can’t shake the feeling that something was not quite as expected.
I headed to Manchester ready to attend a metaphorical funeral. Yet, and contrary to the media narrative that appears to have emerged, this was not a totally downcast affair; there’s still fire left in the belly of this political beast.
Yes, a certain buzz was missing, but it felt like there was fight left in the Conservative Party. A full fringe programme, plenty of businesses in attendance, and while there were noticeably few backbench MPs present, cabinet ministers were notable by their high profile across the conference.
While the atmosphere at a party conference is not an exact measure of the appetite for an electoral fight, it does provide some insights as to what may lie ahead in the coming months.
So, what lessons can we take away from Conservative Party Conference?
It is crucial to keep engaging with the Government, and Conservative politicians more generally, to achieve your policy aims.
The Conservatives still have the ability to dramatically alter the policy and regulatory landscape. Net zero, infrastructure investment, health policy – with as much as a year to go until any election, decisions made now will define the landscape long after, if as the polls suggest, Labour enter No10. HS2 is a case in point.
In practical terms, it’s far harder for an incoming government to reverse decisions, particularly if those decisions have cost and spending implications.
And of course, those decisions impact Labour policy right now. Particularly regarding the cost of living, Conservative policy that positions the Party as the champion of stretched households, will back Labour into a corner on spending, potentially forcing its hand in critical areas.
To stand any chance of winning the next election, the Conservatives need to drive economic growth, and tech, including AI, crypto and blockchain, will be key to this. The Government also needs to convince the electorate that they have answers to the big challenges facing the country around the environment and healthcare.
The Conference fringe programme was packed full of events on these topics – and it was encouraging to see the insights and expertise of a myriad of companies and organisations working in these spaces.
The interest around these sectors – and the importance of them electorally – will mean that they will remain high on the Government’s agenda in the coming months.
Sunak is serious about seizing the agenda, and differentiating from Labour, by positioning himself as the change candidate – ready to take ‘tough decisions’ that deviate from the received political wisdom of recent years.
Indeed, he finished his Conference speech with: “Be in no doubt: it is time for a change. And we are it.”
After thirteen years of Conservative governments, if the Prime Minister manages to define himself as the change candidate, it will be an era defining piece of political escapology.
At its core, this approach is about tapping into the way people feel, even if that doesn’t truly align with the reality of the situation. This will often mean that policy making will be unpredictable, and it will be crucial to build this into your planning. Expect the unexpected and make sure that the solution that you present to policy makers cannot be ignored.
It’s the election strategy on which the Prime Minister has bet his career, and there’s no (u) turning back now. As my mind now turns to Liverpool, and Labour Party Conference next week, I’m eager to see how Labour respond.