From net zero uncertainty to levelling up leadership, progress on pledges and pressure for tax cuts, the IfG expert team set out the questions that need answering as Rishi Sunak and his party gather in Manchester
1. Will Rishi Sunak add policy announcements to his five pledges?
As the Conservative party assembles in Manchester, hampered by train strikes and preoccupied by a row over HS2, perhaps it is no wonder Rishi Sunak feels more inclined to prioritise the preferences of motorists. This weekend’s new clutch of car-friendly policies came in the wake of last week’s announcement of net zero reversals which – taken together – begin to answer the question of whether we are going to see a shift in approach from the prime minister in the run into the next general election.
In the year to date, the PM has focused his efforts around his five relatively narrow priorities – three economic objectives along with small boats and waiting lists – on which he has asked the UK public to judge him by the end of 2023. But the latest announcements have been framed in broader terms, around the slogan “Long term decisions for a brighter future”, and one question for conference is whether we will begin to see policy-announcements that might plausibly match up to this rhetoric.
For the governing party – which already has strong influence over the news agenda – the conference stage is normally less of a key opportunity to communicate with the public than it is for opposition parties. But as media and wider attention has begun to follow the polls to the Labour party, this year’s Conservative party conference is an important opportunity for ministers to frame their offer to voters, and crucially to explain why the problems they are seeking to solve are not of their own making over the past 13 years.
2. Will we see any political leadership on levelling up?
The pledge to level up the country was front and centre in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, but changes in prime minister since the summer of 2022 have led to the agenda being deprioritised. A recent Institute for Government report highlighted that the first test any government needs to meet if it wants to address regional inequalities is to demonstrate it is a political priority. This conference represents one of the last opportunities before the next election for Rishi Sunak, chancellor Jeremy Hunt and levelling up secretary Michael Gove to re-commit to the agenda and to explain their strategy for delivering long-term change.
Three areas in particular are worth looking out for. First, will Sunak and others use the language of ‘levelling up’ as they lay out broader plans? The phrase was almost entirely absent from the leadership contest last summer and the conference last year, which indicated a shift in political prioritisation. Second, will the government announce meaningful new policies that could drive the big economic changes needed over the longer-term if the agenda is to succeed, or will announcements focus on narrow short-term wins that might yield dividends before the next election? Third, will the government re-commit to its plans for further devolution within England, an area where notable progress has been made over the past two years?
3. What happens next with net zero?
The prime minister used a hastily brought forward speech a week before his party’s conference to set out what he called a new more honest and pragmatic approach to net zero, announcing delays to key targets on EVs and home heating as well as scrapping energy efficiency requirements on landlords. However, he also reiterated his commitment to the 2050 net zero target, increased grants for heat pumps and announced future plans for work on the grid and spatial planning of the energy system. One particular strand, reinforced by a later announcement that he was disbanding the Energy Efficiency Task Force, was to make clear his government was not prepared to contemplate any potential attempts at demand management or behaviour change – even where it would cut bills, and make the climate targets he still claimed to support cheaper to deliver.
The speech looked like an attempt to open up a clear wedge issue with Labour over climate change – following on from the successful weaponization of the ULEZ expansion by the Conservatives in the Uxbridge by-election, and it gained Rishi Sunak some of his best headlines in the Conservative-leaning press.
The conference will be a chance to judge whether Sunak himself – and new energy and climate change secretary Clare Coutinho – double down on this new approach or have any announcements on how to fill the gap in net zero delivery plans they have created. It will also be interesting to see how it plays with two audiences attending conference – members, who will look both at their own wallets but also at how the move changes the electoral calculus in their constituencies, and businesses and lobby groups, many of whom will be shaking their heads in despair at more policy chopping and changing on climate policy.
4. Will there be an honest debate about spending on public services?
By the time of the next election, most public services will still be performing worse than they were before the pandemic, and substantially worse than they were a decade earlier. The public are particularly concerned about the NHS, and both main parties will want to use their conferences to make the case that they are best placed to bring about improvements.
But neither is being honest about the spending choices facing the next government. The government’s spending plans for 2025/26 onwards, which Labour have committed to following, are incredibly tight. Lord Gus O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary and permanent secretary at the Treasury, speaking recently at the Institute for Government, said the “spending plans are completely unsustainable”.
Whoever forms the next government will find it very difficult to stick to these plans. More money could be made available for public spending by raising taxes but neither of the main parties has so far wanted to talk about this and the Conservative government continues to hint at the prospect of future tax cuts, rather than rises.
The tight spending plans pencilled in for the next parliament (that are only barely enough to start debt falling as a share of national income in five years’ time) may not be sufficient to stem the problems in some public services, let alone to markedly improve service quality. An honest debate is needed about whether to raise taxes or reshape what the state offers. As the Conservatives meet in Manchester, a key question is how far ministers, MPs and party members are willing to discuss these questions.
5. How unified is the Conservative party?
While Rishi Sunak's intervention on net zero policy prompted some disquiet amongst his party, the possibility of scrapping HS2 beyond Birmingham – an idea tested last week – has provoked an angry backlash, including from some Conservative MPs and mayors. This is likely to continue at conference, and is a reminder that Sunak faces a complicated party management challenge and the possibility of public fractures.
Liz Truss’s one-and-only party conference as leader was engulfed by revolts and cabinet colleagues going their own way on everything from the 45p tax abolition to our membership of the ECHR. While the 2023 conference is unlikely to reach the level of shambles seen last year, Sunak will face many of the same problems. Truss is attending and has recently proved she is happy to weigh in on major policy debates, home secretary Suella Braverman shows no signs of slowing down her own media agenda and there will be plenty of former ministers offering commentary on Sunak’s progress. There is also a real risk that many serving ministers are eyeing up the leadership of the Conservative party after Sunak and, as Theresa May learnt with Boris Johnson, it becomes very hard for a weak prime minister to rein colleagues back in once collective responsibility has been allowed to slide.
Then there is the mood throughout the rest of the party. The enthusiasm of MPs, members and councillors can be gauged by how many choose to attend conference – and the interests of those who do show up will be revealed by the questions they ask at fringe events. For Sunak, conference will be a serious test of whether people are already starting to turn their minds to opposition and the likely leadership and intra-party battles that might follow – or remain motivated, relatively united and willing to push for a fifth term for a Conservative prime minister.