Conservative Party Conference: Recap

With opinion polls all pointing towards a Labour victory at the next General Election, this year’s Conservative Party Conference was as much about potential future leadership candidates setting out their stall as it was about the Prime Minister making his pitch for another term in office.

Rishi Sunak had positioned himself as standing for change, a challenging pitch given that his Party has been in Government for some thirteen years now but, having received support for his repositioning on net zero the week before, the PM set about delivering his platform of ‘common sense’ long-term decision making.

Key Announcements


Speculation over HS2 had dominated the pre-conference media coverage and, in his keynote conference speech, PM Rishi Sunak confirmed that the West Midlands to Manchester line would be scrapped after massive overspends.

In its place will be ‘network north,’ a set of smaller transport projects across the north of England.

Some in the business community have suggested that what investors want is certainty and stability, and recent decisions on net zero and HS2 will detract potential investors from coming to the UK.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne have been extremely critical of the move, along with Labour Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, although Labour Leader Keir Starmer has not committed to reinstating the project if he was to become PM after the next election.

Smoking ban

Another headline-grabbing initiative was the Prime Minister’s commitment to phase out the sale of tobacco across the country by effectively raising the legal age of smoking every year so that eventually no-one will be allowed to legally buy cigarettes. Whilst polling suggests such a move is positively received, many claim this is not a conservative policy and point out that it does little to discourage young people from vaping, which is already much more popular than tobacco smoking amongst the youth demographic.

Replacement for A Levels

Sunak said his “main funding priority in every spending review from now on will be education” and announced a new “Advanced British Standard” for post-16 education in England. Whilst in practical terms it would mean school leavers sitting exams for five subjects rather than three, Sunak did not really spell out the point of this surprise policy announcement.

Chancellor’s speech

In an incredibly brief speech, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt spoke about boosting public sector productivity and announced that the Government would reduce the number of civil servants by 66,000, bringing staff numbers back to pre-pandemic levels. (The number had risen by some 35% during Covid) However, Hunt also said that they would seek to bring in 2,500 new data and digital experts as an area of significant growth over the coming decade.

Despite some speculation that further welfare reform measures would be announced, Hunt simply referenced shifts in the system which are helping more people return to the workplace.

Levelling up

Despite the emphasis placed on the ‘levelling up agenda’ in recent years, there was little mention of it this year save for a new announcement of just over £1 billion committed to 55 towns to be spent over 10 years. Secretary of State for Levelling up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, instead focused his speech on housing.

Truss makes pitch for low tax economy

Former Prime Minister Liz Truss was not on the main stage but led a packed-out fringe event calling for policies to “make Britain grow again,” repeating her low-tax, small government policy proposals that she had prioritised during her short stint in Number 10. Only hours before the Chancellors speech, Truss called for a cut to corporation tax, support for fracking and deregulation to encourage investment and growth.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland (or the Windsor Framework) barely got a mention by any of the more high-profile speakers at this year’s conference.

Out of the main political parties here only UUP Leader Doug Beattie was in Manchester and there were none of the fringe events previously hosted by Northern Ireland parties at this year’s event.

In his speech, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, namechecked the various businesses he had visited during his time in office and talked up the local economy and its contribution to the overall UK economy. He also said that the new trading arrangements, agreed with the EU, were an improvement on the NI Protocol and briefly commented on the new controversial legacy plans brought forward by this Government.

On restoring power sharing in Northern Ireland, Heaton Harris said the government was closing in on a legislative fix that would strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and therefore satisfy the DUP demands for what it needs before agreeing to the restoration of a devolved Executive at Stormont.


Next, it will be the turn of the Labour Party to outline their plans for an alternative Government.

Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer is expected to outline plans for cutting wait lists, how to boost economic growth and how their plan to deliver more affordable housing.