MANCHESTER, England — Against all the odds, Rishi Sunak thinks electoral victory is in his sights. His restive Conservative Party is going to take some convincing.
Wrapping up his first Conservative conference as leader and U.K. prime minister on Wednesday, Sunak vowed to “tell it as it is” and “lead in a different way,” as he talked up having “the courage to change direction.” Pitching himself as a “radical” willing to challenge the status quo, he declared: “It is time for a change and we are it.”
But in bars and restaurants around Manchester this week, MPs and activists say victory is a long shot — and they aren’t convinced Sunak has yet cooked up a recipe for success.
“We’re not talking about what we can do for people’s lives — it feels like quite a cagey appeal right now,” a former Cabinet minister said of Sunak’s pitch, warning it felt more like a strategy for minimizing losses.
Others are determined to keep hope alive. “Our voters are grumpy, it will be difficult, but it’s doable … There’s not a single person on the doorstep who’s saying ‘I like what Keir Starmer is saying, I’ll give them a try,’” one more optimistic Cabinet minister, referring to the opposition Labour Party leader, said.
POLITICO spoke to multiple ministers, officials, MPs and activists for this piece. Some were granted anonymity to talk frankly about the state of play in the Conservative Party.
As conference comes to a close, the polls certainly paint a gloomy picture for Sunak. The Tories currently trail Labour by 16 points, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls.
“I would say that if your majority is less than 8,000, you might want to look for another job,” veteran U.S. pollster and political strategist Frank Luntz told Times Radio in recent days.
“I don’t think we can rule out a Conservative victory, but it is certainly not the most likely option,” said Joe Twynam, director of public opinion consultancy Deltapoll, who was attending the conference.
“At the moment the Conservatives are behind on leadership, they’re also behind on economic management. It’s never been the case that a party has come from behind on both of those to win the most seats of the general election, let alone a majority,” he warned.
A “palpable” change in public opinion would be needed within the next few months to turn things around, Twynam noted. But, he said, “there are relatively few known unknowns ahead that provide that opportunity.”
Team Rishi hopes his promise of what they see as better-targeted transport infrastructure in the north, education reform and measures to stop children taking up smoking will calm Tory nerves, and improve the prime minister’s poll ratings. His speech marks the latest effort to position Sunak as the man to take on a “broken” political system that has for too long rewarded short-termism.
And party conference is just one of the big moments being mapped out by Downing Street this fall in a bid to show voters the prime minister really is on their side.
A “quite political” King’s Speech on November 7, where Sunak will have a chance to set out his final slate of legislation, is being eyed as an opportunity to draw more “dividing lines with Labour,” according to one senior government official familiar with the plans.
They also hope it will create goodwill among fractious MPs. “It’s stuff MPs will like. There is some big legislation there, but stuff the parliamentary party should welcome, and should unite us, crucially,” the same official quoted above said.
Buoyed by how well Sunak’s net-zero announcement went down with MPs last month, Downing Street wants to be seen to be tackling more “long-term” challenges in the months ahead.
“You will see more of that for the rest of the year,” the same official said. “Identifying what these challenges are, and what his solutions are to tackle them.”
Sunak has also been planning his biggest government reshuffle after a more limited reordering of his top team last month.
This will be a moment of fresh danger for the PM, as sacking ministers can create discord in the party ranks. But aides say it will focus on landing the right team for the election. A second Cabinet minister outlined the stakes, observing that Sunak needs a “massive reshuffle.”
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt will also deliver an autumn statement, setting out the U.K. government’s latest tax and spend plans, on November 22. It’s another potentially perilous moment for the prime minister amid calls from some wings of his party for tax cuts that the public finances may not be able to bear.
But if these moments land well, and create momentum in the polls, Downing Street could defy expectations of a fall election and instead call a vote in the spring.
In a sign the party is getting battle-ready, MPs have already been told to redouble efforts to collect data on voters in their patch to feed into the Conservative Party HQ’s electoral machine.
Expect the love-bombing of unsure Conservative MPs to step up a gear, too. A key part of Sunak’s strategy since taking office has been to try to get his parliamentary party on side.
Chief Whip Simon Hart, Sunak’s parliamentary aide Craig Williams, and No.10 deputy chief of staff Rupert Yorke have been pivotal in that effort.
HS2 is a multibillion pound high-speed rail route meant to connect Leeds, Birmingham, and Manchester to London | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Sunak has hosted MPs and their spouses for weekends at his official country retreat Chequers, and some have been welcomed into Downing Street for events. He has been holding one-on-one meetings with concerned MPs after his weekly bout of prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons.
Aides think this outreach program has kept hope alive in corners of the party, even if divisions have been on full show at this week’s conference in Manchester.
General satisfaction with Sunak’s messaging on climate change and the Tories’ unexpected by-election win in the London seat of Uxbridge has, aides argue, helped to galvanize MPs in the run-up to conference.
Some in the party even regard their lackluster polling as an advantage. “If people thought things were in the bag or a total lost cause, they’d give up,” said a second senior government official. “But we’ve got a glimmer of hope.”
Sunak’s pitch both as a “change candidate” and the man who grips tricky political decisions is a gamble for someone who has been at the top of government for the last three years.
Foreign Office Minister Andrew Mitchell insisted to POLITICO this was a credible sell. “We’ve had two controversial leaders turfed out and a new broom has come in,” he said.
Yet beyond the forced smiles at packed-out events on the conference fringe, MPs and activists were still aware this could be their last conference in power.
Sunak’s rebels and rivals — always a feature of the conference landscape — have loomed larger than usual because of the tacit acknowledgment that he may be out of Downing Street by this time next year.
A Conservative candidate in a target seat complained that Sunak still lacks “a retail offer” that activists can sell on the doorstep. “You’re just desperate for him to say something that would make people sit up and take notice,” they groaned.
A senior Conservative in local government also found Sunak lacking oomph. They warned that pledges like limiting the use of 20mph speed limits to try and win over motorists will be “marginal — I don’t think it’s an issue on which people are going to change their national vote.”
A second former Cabinet minister who described himself as a “northern Conservative” is also skeptical about the strategy. “We don’t want to have our buttons pushed. We want a proper plan.”
Ultimately, though, aides accept external factors may determine Sunak’s electoral fate.
Murty’s Manchester appearance is not the first time a political spouse has been thrust into the conference spotlight | Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
A Supreme Court judgment looms on whether flights deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda — the centerpiece of the government’s immigration policy — will be able to take off.
And the state of the economy is crucial, too. A surprise fall in inflation has lifted spirits, and Sunak has billed a further slowing of price rises as his “most important priority.”
That may all be wishful thinking, Deltapoll’s Twyman pointed out. “A lot of the economic indicators — whether people feel more positive about their own personal circumstances or the country’s economic situation — they’re all pointing in the wrong direction.”
Another Conservative member on the list of candidates for the next election was more succinct as they reflected on the party’s Manchester conference: “If last year was the death, this year is the funeral.”
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.