A disunited front: the 2023 Conservative Party conference

Sunak’s policy announcements and conference rhetoric only further fractured the Conservative Party

A disunited front: the 2023 Conservative Party conference

Many have found the Conservative homophobic rhetoric and dance party videos a sickening indication of a party on its last legs, although the real story – woven through policy announcements and own-goal political references – is more complex. Sunak failed to appeal to a united Conservative Party and instead achieved the opposite: further fractures. The policy announcements ensured widespread division between loyal Tories, and Sunak’s main speech saw him turning on his predecessors. A pivotal takeaway from the 2023 party conference is the systematic Conservative division which makes Sunak unable to unite the party on any front. 

Policy

Sunak’s major conference announcements concern transport, education and, strangely enough, smoking. 

The HS2 announcement was leaked early and came as no surprise when Sunak declared that the northern leg, between Manchester and Birmingham, and the eastern leg towards East Midlands Parkway, would be scrapped. The project has been in the works since 2012. Sunak’s vague claim that the £36 billion saved would be distributed to the rest of the country was unconvincing. The HS2 announcement angered and disappointed many, crucially not just on the left. Some of Sunak’s harshest critics come from Conservative party faithful, deepening already palpable fractures. 

Former Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted, “It will help to fuel the views of those who argue that we can no longer think or act for the long-term as a country; that we are heading in the wrong direction.” Not a promising response from a conference whose tagline was, ‘long-term decisions for a brighter future.’ Similarly, Conservative mayor for the West Midlands, Andy Street, said scrapping HS2 would be “cancelling the future.”

Sunak’s broad education reforms caused noticeably less division. Sunak proposed combining academic and vocational post-16 education into a new Advanced British Standard qualification. Funded by an extra £600 million over two years to train new teachers and providing £30,000 tax-free bonuses for new teachers, the new baccalaureate system would encourage students to study maths and English up to the age of 18. The proposal, however, would not come into action for another 11 years at least. To some, it may seem to be a worthless policy announcement for a party unlikely to be able to implement such radical reform. Nevertheless, for Conservatives it’s a worthwhile incursion into historic Labour territory. 

Politics

The final largely unexpected policy announcement concerned the smoking age. Sunak proposed raising the smoking age by one year each year so that eventually young people are unable to access tobacco. Smoking is a broad church policy issue… to all other than the neoliberals increasingly filling the Conservative Party. Restricting individual freedom is unlikely to go down well, even in the interests of national health. 

Aside from policy, the 2023 Conservative party saw its leader admonish all Prime Ministers from the last 30 years. Sunak claimed, “we’ve had 30 years of a political system which incentivises the easy decision, not the right one…Thirty years of vested interests standing in the way of change. Thirty years of rhetorical ambition which achieves little more than a short-term headline.” In other words, Sunak claims that the political system and those who led it (which includes five PMs from his own party) were not fit for purpose. 

Pandemonium 

Party conferences are a stage for motivation, inspiration and, above all, unity. Ideally, they galvanise action for the upcoming year. The 2023 conference is particularly pivotal when considering the next election will likely be held before this time next year. Sunak’s policy undermined broad Conservative goals and his rhetoric castigated the party’s recent history. Despite the countless times Sunak tried to position himself as the change candidate, the story of the 2023 Conservative Party conference is illustrative of the recurrent Tory affliction: fundamental disunity.

Header Image Credit: The Conservative Party via Flikr

Author

Sienna James

Sienna James Voice Team

Sienna is the Assistant Editor at Voice. She spent three years studying History of Art at Cambridge University and loves to explore the intersection between politics, history and visual culture. She also loves to hear how young people and artists are engaging in various innovative forms of socio-political resistance whether that's activism or art-making.

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