Rishi Sunak’s HS2 aim is as clear as his messaging has been chaotic: scrap the Birmingham to Manchester leg, pare back the project’s costs, and pour savings into other rail and road schemes for the North and Midlands. That means getting his political ducks in a row – with Conservative MPs, local mayors, the railway industry and interest groups supporting his new plan.
Why hasn’t he done so already? Because a government official made the classic error – assuming it was one – of exposing a document to a lurking photographer. The Independent got the story and the Prime Minister’s plan went public. As with his Net Zero speech, Downing Street was bounced.
Nonetheless, the story was published over a fortnight ago. Why didn’t Number Ten sort the matter by the end of last week, say, to avoid reaction spilling over into the Conservative Party Conference itself? Sunak may now pack an announcement into his conference speech tomorrow.
If he does, how will Andy Street, who today held an impromptu press conference within the conference’s secure zone, react? Our columnist’s relationship with the Prime Minister has been tense since the latter’s days as Chancellor. The West Midlands Mayor will present any further resiling from HS2 as a betrayal by a south-focused Prime Minister of the Midlands and North.
Former Prime Ministers may also pile in. However, voters in provincial marginals, especially the Red Wall seats gained in 2019, may not see it that way. On this site today, our columnist, Peter Franklin, repeats his powerful case against HS2 – and reminds readers that, the best part of a decade ago, the ConservativeHome Manifesto proposed prizing east-west high speed links over north-south ones.
A new document launched only yesterday makes the same point. The Northern Research Group recommends that the Government “prioritise East-West connectivity by introducing a Charles Line across the North, connecting economies from Liverpool to Hull”. This site wouldn’t claim to have its finger on the pulse of voter opinion, but Tory MPs in northern marginals will certainly have a feel for it.
Our former columnist James Frayne of Public First believes that Ministers’ change of tack on Net Zero may not help them with the electorate in the longer run. He is more relaxed about the high speed rail project – telling me that “relatively few people use inter city trains regularly now and vanishingly few would ever use HS2”.
Make what you will of the mass of polling about the project, but it isn’t clear that there’s a set pattern of opinion, even in the Midlands and North: much seems to depend, as ever, on how questions are framed. All the same, it’s fair to say that Downing Street’s tyro team haven’t prepared for a Party Conference before, and that they have been slow to “close the story down”.
Elsewhere, they’re not trying at all on matters more fundamental to the future of the Conservatives than HS2. Sunak arrived in Manchester for the conference if not with the wind in his sails, then at least with them sounding the occasional flap. When he became Prime Minister, the Conservatives were 27 points behind in the polls. At the start of September, the gap was 18 points. Now it’s 16 points.
Recent polls are unlikely to mean anything much and may simply echo conference season noise. Nonetheless, previous party leaderships would have swooped on them. One can imagine some of Greg Hands’ predecessors as Party Chairman asking Tory members, as Chris Patten did at a Conservative conference before the 1992 general election, “do you really want to win?”
“Now, as the polls show us on the move,” Hands could have said (spinning their findings), “is the time for this Party to come together. No leadership bids. No coded criticisms. No noises off. Don’t put our marginal seats at risk. Don’t hand the country to Starmer. Back our leader. Unity first.”
The Party Chairman did nothing of the kind, and one understands why. It’s admittedly hard to weigh that mutable commodity, “the mood of the conference” – even were it not for the train strikes, which will have skewed attendance. The action long ago drained out the hall and into the fringe (though the former was full today for Jeremy Hunt).
Corporates outnumber representatives – or seem to though, since conference attendees contain a big slice of youngish men, it is hard to be sure. All the same, there is lots of politics in Manchester this year. The context is familiar: plague, war, the worst fall in living standards on record, five Conservative leaders in fewer than ten years, a Prime Minister with no mandate from the voters (or Party members).
Sunak faces an arc running from outright opponents through open critics to prospective successors. The first is exemplified by Peter Cruddas, the Boris Johnson backer turned Conservative Democratic Organisation funder, who urged Tory donors this week to stop giving the party money, so stunning Conservative MPs who were present.
The second is personified by Liz Truss – who has been surprising voters, insofar as they’re listening at all, with the suggestion that her premiership, which they experienced as a failure, was somehow a success. For the third, look at the top of our Cabinet League Table or thereabouts.
Kemi Badenoch made her pitch to the conference yesterday. Suella Braverman speaks today. Penny Mordaunt has a graveyard slot on Wednesday. Outside Cabinet, Priti Patel is mixing the right-wing politics with which she’s associated with centrist-flavoured criticisms of her successor. James Cleverly is a rare, restrained male presence amidst this queue of potential women Tory leaders.
Calling for unity against this background might be useless at best and counter-productive at worst – sparking a slanging-match between the Prime Minister’s supporters and opponents, with media vox pops, doorstep interviews and Twitter memes piled on top. Instead, Downing Street has decided to stay grittily on message.
That said, it isn’t always clear. Or rather, while Sunak has laid down his marker – “long-term decisions for a brigher future”, the conference slogan reads, its last words seeking to cheer up a grim core – the phrase has not been hammered home in every speech and interview, in the way that watchwords under previous leaderships once were. Think for example of “our next steps forward” under Margaret Thatcher.
Instead, the conference has featured a blitz of unconnected announcements. Tomorrow, we will see whether the Prime Minister can draw them together into a coherent whole. Either way, he is leaving internal debate to his critics and keeping his external focus, or at least has tried to so far.
If the Conservatives somehow pull off a fifth general election victory, his calculation will have paid off. If they don’t, yesterday’s “Rally for Growth” may foreshadow the future for the Conservatives, at least for the time being. The debate may be over before GB News, the Telegraph stable, this site and others can even begin to host it.
At any rate, ConservativeHome will host an event later today whose theme is that the state is indeed too big and taxes too high – but that neither can be reduced before the supply of government is reduced. And that to reduce the supply of government one has first to reduce the demand for government.
Whatever one’s view and happens next, the question that Patten asked over 30 years ago – just before the surprise win of 1992, after three long terms of Tory government – resonates at this one. Do the Conservatives really want to win? Or are they, in their heart of hearts, ready for Sir Keir Starmer?