The last time Britain’s ruling Conservative Party gathered in one place, at its annual conference last year in Birmingham, the party was on the verge of yet another crisis. Their fourth leader in six years, Liz Truss, had just passed a series of unfunded tax cuts for the superrich that crashed the British pound, spooked the markets, and undermined Britain’s credibility around the world. Just weeks later, a fifth leader, Rishi Sunak, took the helm.
At this year’s conference in Manchester—likely to be the party’s last before the general election expected next year—the mood was similarly dour. With less excitement and fewer attendees than years past, this gathering belonged to a party that seemed resigned to its electoral fate—one which polls project will see the Conservatives booted out of government by the ascendant opposition Labour Party after 14 long years in power.
But Britain’s Conservatives are not going down without a fight—with each other, that is.
Although Sunak is both Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Conservative Party, he was hardly the star of its conference. Perhaps because so many of his Conservative colleagues were jostling for the spotlight in an apparent attempt to position themselves as party leaders-in-waiting. In the days leading up to the conference, Suella Braverman, Britain’s home secretary responsible for immigration, police, and other internal matters, delivered an incendiary speech on the “existential challenge” of uncontrolled immigration that many observers regarded as an unambiguous leadership pitch. (Braverman, who is herself the daughter of Indian migrants from Kenya and Mauritius, told the conference that “the wind of change” that carried her parents to Britain in the 1960s “was a mere gust compared [with] the hurricane that is coming.”) Even Sunak’s predecessor appeared to be staging her own soft bid to reclaim the Conservative leadership during an event billed as the “Great British Growth” rally, lines for which snaked around the corridors and up the stairs of Manchester’s Midland Hotel. The interest in Truss’s speech was remarkable considering her economic program had only a year ago plunged the U.K. to the brink of recession. Another Conservative lawmaker who spoke at the rally claimed that Truss’s pro-growth wing claims the support of 60 lawmakers, or roughly the same size as Sunak’s majority in Parliament—enough to potentially block the passage of the government’s upcoming autumn statement when it’s presented to Parliament next month. “It’s a rebellion,” one conference attendee waiting in the line mused. “Everyone loves a rebellion!”
Addressing a packed ballroom of hundreds of grassroots party members on Monday afternoon, Truss pressured the government to lower taxes and slash regulation in a bid to, as the banner behind her stated, “Make Britain Grow Again.” The speech, which was met with plenty of enthusiasm by party activists in the room, served as a direct challenge to Sunak—who has thus far refused to commit to tax cuts.
“It’s absolutely not 1996; it isn’t funereal,” Anand Menon, the director of the U.K. in a Changing Europe think tank, tells TIME of the conference, referencing the last time Conservatives gathered in the run up to a major election defeat. “The party’s at that weird stage where people are energized; they’re relishing the internal fight. Some of them have clocked off the fight with Labour, and I think that’s a really bad sign.”
If the mood and talking points of the Manchester conference are any indication, the next division is likely to be between those belonging to the economic libertarian faction of the party (such as Truss) and the more hardline culture warriors (such as Braverman).
“It’s going to have a fight for its soul as significant as the fight between Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher,” says the American pollster and communications advisor Frank Luntz, referring to the former Conservative Party leaders, the former of whom came to symbolize the moderate Conservative opposition to Thatcherism’s austerity policies and opposition to European integration. Lutz, who has spent the summer holding focus groups with voters across the U.K., says Conservative lawmakers in Westminster don't fully comprehend the scale of anger that many Conservative voters feel toward the party. “This country is mad as hell,” Luntz says, citing the party base’s displeasure over the cost-of-living crisis, as well as immigration and ailing public services. As he sees it, the risk is that Conservative voters will stay home, handing the election to Labour. “The protest vote here is not to vote.”
When Sunak delivers his own conference speech on Wednesday, he will seek to make the improbable case that his party—and his premiership—still has a fighting chance at the next election. But if his own lawmakers don’t appear to believe it, it’s difficult to imagine that the country will. During one of the many breakout sessions held over the course of the gathering, dozens of party members (who are themselves among the most fervent and committed supporters of the party) were asked whether they believe the Conservatives could win the next election. Only a handful raised their hands.
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Write to Yasmeen Serhan/Manchester at email@example.com