Rishi Sunak promises to use Tory conference to set out long-term vision for UK

Conservative Party Conference 2023 Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The Prime Minister has vowed to set out his long-term vision for the country at the Conservative Party conference without taking the “easy” choices.

The Tories will gather in Manchester on Sunday for the opening of their four-day conference with questions hanging over the future of the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail project and clamour from party grandees for tax cuts to be unveiled.

Rishi Sunak, in his first conference as leader, is expected to focus on policies that have the potential to narrow the polls against his Labour rivals.

Opinion polling puts the Tories about 18 points on average behind Sir Keir Starmer’s outfit.

However, Mr Sunak may find comfort in a survey by Opinium, carried out among almost 3,000 UK adults between September 27-29, suggesting the race between the two sides has narrowed to the closest it has been since he entered Downing Street almost 12 months ago, with the blue side trailing by 10 points.

The Prime Minister was dealt a blow on the eve of conference when it was revealed that Richard Walker, the executive chairman of Iceland supermarket, had quit the party.

Mr Walker, who reportedly previously held ambitions of becoming a Tory MP, told BBC News: “It has become clear to me over recent months that the Conservative Party are drifting out of touch with the needs of business, with the environment and also the everyday people that my business touches and serves.”

Mr Sunak, who arrived in the North West with his wife Akshata Murty on Saturday afternoon, tweeted: “After nearly a year as Prime Minister, I’ve learnt that the political system incentivises the easy decision, not always the right one.

“At Conservative Party conference this week, we’ll show that can change.

“And we’ll do it by taking long-term decisions for a brighter future.”

His comments follow his recent decision to water down net zero commitments and an announcement that he was “slamming the brakes on the war on motorists” by producing a slew of pro-driving policies.

On Sunday, Mr Sunak will make a visit to a town in Lancashire to mark the announcement of a £1 billion fund to help regenerate towns across the UK.

Rishi Sunak is expected to face further questions over the future of HS2 while in Manchester Credit: HS2/PA

As part of the package, 55 towns will be given a £20 million endowment-style fund – each to be spent over the course of a decade on improvements.

The Prime Minister said it was part of a new long-term vision for towns that was about putting “funding in the hands of local people” so they could “level up” their communities.

Some of the places being awarded the funding are part of the so-called Red Wall — constituencies in Labour’s traditional heartlands of the North of England and the Midlands that Boris Johnson won for the Tories during his landslide election victory in 2019 — which Mr Sunak will need to hold at the next election to remain in No 10.

Constituencies such as Great Grimsby in Lincolnshire, Wrexham in Wales and Dudley North in the West Midlands are among those that switched from Labour to the Tories in 2019 and will benefit from the latest towns investment.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said the 55 towns had been selected based on deprivation measures and other factors.

Former PM Liz Truss is set to make an intervention at a rally in Manchester this week Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

While in Manchester, Mr Sunak is likely to face further questions about the future of HS2 following speculation he is considering axing the second phase between Birmingham and the conference’s host city over cost concerns.

Ahead of the conference, Theresa May became the third former Tory prime minister to urge him not to scale back the major transport project following interventions from Boris Johnson and, according to reports, David Cameron.

Another former prime minister, Mr Sunak’s direct predecessor Liz Truss, is also expected to use a speech at a rally on the fringes of the conference on Monday to call for corporation tax to be cut to 19% to drive economic growth.

Reports have suggested that some Cabinet ministers could use the conference to begin positioning for the next leadership contest, with one eye on the opinion polls currently suggesting the Tories could be in Opposition by this time next year.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman used a newspaper interview to criticise celebrities who spoke out against her speech on migration, made in the United States last week.

Singer Sir Elton John said Ms Braverman, who had argued discrimination for being gay should not be enough to qualify for international refugee protection, risked “further legitimising hate and violence” against LGBT people.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman was in the US to make a speech about migration last week Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Mrs Braverman, who has been tasked with helping to deliver Mr Sunak’s pledge of stopping boats of migrants from crossing the Channel, told the Mail On Sunday that celebrity critics were “out-of-touch pampered elites” who were “virtue-signalling”.

In her Stateside intervention, the Home Secretary called for the reform of international treaties, such as the United Nations’ Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), arguing that their definitions of what an asylum seeker is needed to be tightened.

Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch backed the remarks in comments made to The Sunday Times, adding that leaving the ECHR is “definitely something that needs to be on the table” — a stance that is likely to play well with the right of the party.

No 10 has regularly stated that it remains confident in its legal case for sending asylum seekers arriving via the Channel back to their country of origin or to Rwanda, a policy which is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court.

Speakers at the Tory conference on Sunday include Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps and party chairman Greg Hands.