Rishi Sunak has just bet everything on his conference speech, but was it enough? 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

As the banners and security hoardings are taken down from around the Conservative Party’s Manchester Conference venue, two lingering questions remain, can the Rishi Sunak win the next election and has his 7,500-word conference speech helped or hindered?

Let me start, with the Prime Minister’s message to his activists and the wider country.

It was billed as a “policy laden speech” and indeed there were a number of big announcements: cancelling HS2 in favour of spending a staggering £36 billion on other transport projects, a New Zealand style smoking ban, so no 14 will ever be able to buy cigarettes, the scrapping of A-levels and T-levels, which will see them replaced with a single qualification, protection for gender critical feminists and those who believe in biological sex and a tax-free bonus for teachers of up to £30,000 over the first five years of their career.

But for many, these big offers to the British Public felt disjointed. Take the HS2 announcement, while there was certainly applause in the Conference Hall, a number of leading Tories criticised the move, while a lack of detail around the policy suggested that the projects could be years aways and as ethereal as the new rail line they are supposed to replace.

Then there was the announcement to ban smoking. Yes, it is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the UK, roughly 64,000 per year, but the Conservative’s hate banning things, and this coupled with a vague promise to also restrict the sale of vaping devices, was quickly branded absurd by several Conservative leaning think tanks. In fact, evidence from Australia suggests that if you go this hard on tobacco, while at the same time restricting access to less harmful alternatives could be counterproductive. Australia after all saw their smoking rate go up last year, while the UK saw another decline.

There were other problems with the PM’s speech. One senior activist said to me that the speech was very presidential and all about Rishi. They felt he missed the opportunity to bring the Party together after the chaos of the last couple of years.

Nor did his statement about no immediate tax cuts cheer up his troops, because around the Conference numerous fringe meetings heard from some of the Party’s most popular MPs of the need to cut taxes on business and families. Every time a tax cut was muted, it was met with applause, because the Conservative Party at its heart hates taxes and wants them cut.

Finally on the contents of the speech, and I can’t underscore this point enough, was the unconvincing line that Rishi is the new kid on the block – “It is time for change. And we are it” he thundered.

I know that this is part of some elaborate strategy that has been dreamed up by CCHQ and its consultants, but the line felt disingenuous to the max.

The Prime Minister has, after all, sat around the Cabinet Table since 2019 and was the Chancellor from February 2020. Indeed, he reminded the audience of 800 activists and MPs, plus the assembled media, that in Cabinet he was responsible for the Furlow Scheme, that the Treasury introduced during the pandemic, and which protected so many livelihoods and businesses.

So while reminding us of what he has done in Government, he tried to distance himself from the last 13 years. This mixed messaging seemed to fall flat, but I might well be proved wrong.

I don’t mean to be down on the PM’s speech, there were some nice touches. Having his wife introduce him was perhaps the best of these, while lines such “a man is a man and a woman is a woman” proved very popular among activists who detest the so-called “woke agenda”.

But to me and those I spoke to, the speech lacked cohesion. A few big policies ideas were largely unconnected, apart from the fact their impact will not be felt for years to come. It would seem unlikely then that this speech has done enough to help the PM to win the General Election, a view echoed by one MP who told me, the PM missed an opportunity to give voters a “positive reason to go to vote” at the next General Election.

Perhaps then the best I can say about the speech is, it is unlikely to have hindered PM’s chances of winning.

Next week, it’s the turn of the Labour Leader, Sir Keir Starmer, to set out his ambitions for the Country. Will he do any better?

Alistair Thompson

Alistair Thompson is the Director of Team Britannia PR and a journalist.