The challenge for Rishi Sunak at his most important conference

ITV News' Political Editor Robert Peston on what's to come tomorrow during the Conservative Party Conference

This is Rishi Sunak's last Conservative Party Conference before the general election. I say that with almost total confidence - because even if he chooses to go to the country in October 2024, which is what I expect, his colleagues tell me there is next to no chance he would choose to hold a conference during the campaign.

It would be his choice. There is no prohibition on party conferences during an official electoral period. But Tory campaigners say it would be nuts to lure members away from social-media targeting and door knocking for an event that would be seen by Tory activists as a distraction and by most of the country as irrelevant.

In other words, Sunak and his party are operating on the assumption that this - his first conference as party leader - is likely to be his most important, and conceivably his last.

'The bar is low' for a successful Conservative Party Conference, says Robert Peston as he walks us through what to expect from this year's event

Now that we've established that this conference matters, what is the big thing he has to achieve?

It is to persuade his grassroots - and probably himself too - that he and they can win.

Don't misunderstand what I am saying. If he tells them their party will win they will question his grasp of political reality. But he has to give voters a coherent and compelling vision of how a Sunak government that is given a mandate would improve their lives, and if that's credible he'll inspire his troops that the coming battle is worth it.

So how does he plan to give them a sense of hope?

His big idea is to say that the way government has been conducted for the past thirty years failed in its own terms, that it's no longer appropriate, and that he has been and will govern differently.

His critique is that big decisions by Labour and Tory governments have been taken to generate short term headlines, without enough prior scrutiny of long term consequences.

So an order has gone out from Downing Street that every ministerial or party statement has to contain the phrase "long term". And of course it's everywhere on the conference platform, as part of the official new Tory slogan "long term decisions for a brighter future".

There are two interpretations of what's going on here.

First is that Sunak has grasped that politics and government after the digital revolution has become inherently more complex and that the traditional linear model of Whitehall decision-making is failing.

This is true, and if you want to know why the UK needs a more iterative policy-making process - involving more and more diverse voices, more prior testing, more and better data - I would recommend a recent Substack essay by James Plunkett of the innovation think-tank Nesta.

Neither Sunak - or I - would argue that an election can be won by manifesting a sophisticated grasp of complexity theory. In an AI world, the geeks may be in the ascendant, though they are not running everything, yet.

The more cynical version of what Sunak is doing is to find intellectual cover for short-term decisions that are in fact populist and which he hopes will be popular. These include his delays to the phase-out of gas boilers and petrol/diesel cars and his clamp-down on the ability of local councils to impose traffic-calming one-way systems and 20 mph speed limits.

The argument he makes with these sort-of u-turns is not that climate change, air pollution and dangerous driving aren't real and present dangers, but that earlier government policies to address them had unfortunate and unforeseen consequences.

Whether or not you see this as refined cakeism, what is blindingly obvious is that they don't address the revealed priorities of most British people - or do so only marginally. Those priorities are to end the cost-of-living crisis, map a road to improved living standards, fix the health service and tackle an epidemic of unpunished crime.

It is possible, arguable even, that most of us don't expect quick fixes, that we accept the argument that British redemption is a long term project. But what Sunak knows isn't enough is to rely on inflation falling by the end of next year to 1 percentage point above the 2 percent target and then claiming everything of importance is sorted.

The challenge for Sunak is to be simultaneously ambitious and credible.

He is a right-wing economic liberal. Outside of periods of acute crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic, he is sceptical of big government and interventionism - other than to stimulate investment, research and innovation by the private sector. His instincts therefore are to shrink the state and then cut taxes - because the Truss experiment proved beyond reasonable doubt that the reverse sequencing is the road to penury.

But at a time when every important public service is creaking, if not crumbling in a heap of aerated cement, what on earth can he cut?

It is all very well to promise a revolution in the delivery of public services through the harnessing of artificial intelligence, as Jeremy Hunt has been doing - and as it happens I am persuaded that AI should and must become part of the fabric of health, education and policing - but that feels like a technocratic choice, not a political one. What Sunak needs to find this week is a point of difference with Starmer and Labour that appeals to more than just a portion of the swing voters who backed Boris Johnson in 2019.

He may have identified that defining difference. But if he has, it's a very well-kept secret.

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