Poll bounce puts spring in Conservative Conference, but there is still much work to do admits MPs, by Alistair Thompson

15/09/2021. London, The Chancellor of the Exchequer , Rt Hon Rishi Sunak. 10 Downing Street. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

They say a week’s a long time in politics, if that’s the case then the last 12 months must have seemed like a life sentence for the Conservatives. For the last year they have been hit by poll after poll showing that the Party and indeed the Prime Minister were heading for a catastrophic election defeat.

Labour’s lead of over 20 points suggested that the Conservative Party would not only lose all the Red Wall seats, taken by Boris Johnson, but faced a wipeout in Scotland and London and a slew of seats turning Red across the Midlands and Conservative heartlands.

But then late last week, saw what senior Conservatives hope are the first signs of a fight back as a new poll slashed Labour’s lead in half. Suddenly the bleak outlook was, well, not so bleak.

For the first time since Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister, Conservative Party members and MPs believe that there is a genuine path to victory.

The findings of the poll could not have come at a better time for the PM and party officials, as thousands of members descend on Manchester for their annual conference.

Indeed talking to senior party officials and MPs, this is the first time that talk has been of winning not losing the General Election.

As one MP told me this morning that while they [the Conservative Party] expect to lose dozens of seats, the tightening in the polls has been a tonic to many disheartened colleagues who could now see a narrow path to victory. Adding that it was just the boost required ahead of the conference.

Another MP echoed these sentiments, saying that Labour still had a long way to go to convince the public they had changed and the “Islington lawyer Sir Keir” was not popular on the doorstep and there were a lot of “undecideds”.

And it’s not just the MPs who shared this new sense of optimism. One Scottish Tory activist told me proudly, that Keir Starmer needed a bigger swing to win the election than Tony Blair did in 1997, dryly adding, “and he’s no Tony Blair”.

The positive atmosphere was further boosted by a slew of eye-catching announcements. Education Secretary Gillian Keegan announced mobile phones would be banned in schools, while Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced the national living wage would rise to £11 per hour from April and there would be a renewed focus on those who refuse to work, by slashing their benefits. Expect more to follow.

Not everyone was so upbeat, indeed at the New Conservatives Fringe meeting, the biggest laugh of the entire event came when the audience was asked why they thought taxes were so high in the country, with one party member, blurting out “Jeremy Hunt”.

While 33 MPs have signed a pledge to oppose raising the the total burden of taxes on the British public in any future budget. Asked at the same New Conservatives Fringe meeting, former Party Chairman and popular Red Wall MP Jake Berry confirmed this included stealth taxes and thresholds and predicted more of his colleagues would sign the pledge in the coming weeks. Liz Truss called on the Prime Minister to slash Corporation Tax in the next budget, Sir John Redwood urged the Chancellor to dramatically raise the VAT threshold to between £200,000 – £250,000 to help small business and increase the number of self-employed people, which has fallen by around 800,000 since 2020 and Miriam Cates said that the next manifesto should include a commitment to recognising household income and not just an individual’s income.

Yet despite these voices urging the Government to commit to a more traditional or Thatcherite approach, there was little sign of the last year’s damaging rows. Indeed, what struck me today was the civility of the debates in the various fringe meetings. Even those strongly disagreeing with the current direction of the Government seemed to cut the leadership considerable slack and pulled back from overtly attacking them.

The big question however, is whether the Conservatives can keep this up for the next couple of days and week? If they do then the reduction in Labour’s lead might become permanent or even tighten further and mean that the next year’s General Election might not be the forgone conclusion that some had been predicting.