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Rishi Sunak’s rebellious army

Rishi Sunak’s rebellious army

by host

MANCHESTER, England — Rishi Sunak is trying to convince the British public the Tories have a clear and unified plan to stay in power. His less-than-loyal troops have their own ideas.

With an election due next year, the U.K. prime minister — who faces a pivotal moment with his first conference speech as party leader Wednesday — might have hoped a shared fear of annihilation at the polls might encourage his fractious party to unite behind a common cause.

“I have a good sense of what the British people’s priorities are. I’m going to set about delivering for them,” Sunak optimistically told the BBC on Sunday as his party conference kicked off.

But singing from the same hymn sheet as the leader is not high on the agenda for a significant number of Tory MPs.

In every corner of the cavernous conference center in Manchester, senior Tories were popping up on Monday to tout their own ideas about the best direction of the party.

Such clear signs of division are not good news for the prime minister.

“The problem with divided parties is that voters do not know what they are voting for,” Redfield & Wilton Strategies Director of Research, Philip van Scheltinga, said. “Today, if you ask voters what the Conservative Party stands for, the most common response is: ‘Don’t know.’”

Trussonomics 4 eva

This time last year Liz Truss found herself in a not-dissimilar position, a prime minister doing battle with rebellious Tory MPs who had their own ideas about how to run the country.

On Monday she chose to offer her successor a few ideas of her own, holding a rebel rally with other disaffected Tories in a separate part of the conference center as Jeremy Hunt, the man she appointed as Chancellor 12 months ago, made his keynote speech.

In news terms, at least, Truss’ high-profile return to conference overshadowed the finance minister on stage.

“What we need to acknowledge is government is too big, taxes are too high and we are spending too much,” Truss said to rousing applause, suggesting Britain should build 500,000 new homes a year and slash corporation tax back to 19 percent. “I want everyone in this room to unleash their inner Conservative,” she said.

Her so-called “growth group” of backbench Tory MPs now boasts around 60 members — meaning that in theory, the caucus has the potential to inflict actual parliamentary damage on the prime minister if they choose to vote against him en masse.

Former Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg and former Home Secretary Priti Patel were among her back-up rebels.

The queue for the Truss fringe stretched around corners and up the stairs in the Midland Hotel, and included many of those who voted for Truss as leader in 2022.

Among those in the audience were Boris Johnson’s former spin doctor Guto Harri; ex-Vote Leave chief Matthew Elliott; and Mr. Brexit himself, Nigel Farage.

You May remember me?

Another former Tory prime minister, Theresa May, used her appearance at a Conservative Environment Network event (CEN) to warn Sunak not to take further backward steps on the path to net zero.

The room was rammed to the hilt as a long line of green Tory activists waited to see the woman who as prime minister enshrined Britain’s net zero target in law.
“We are the only party with conserve in our name,” May told those present, warning that the Conservatives’ recent success in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election was “not won on an anti-environment ticket” as some have insisted — but rather in a specific rebellion against London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s motoring taxes.
Though supporting Sunak’s aspiration of “taking decisions for the long term,” May used the prime minister’s own rhetoric as a reason why Conservatives should remain committed to her net zero target. 
Chasing net zero “is the growth opportunity of the century,” May told her party, not an “act of economic harm.” 

The old and the new

And it’s not just ex-PMs offering Sunak their — unwanted — policy wisdom from the sidelines in Manchester.

A “rally for the manifesto” by the so-called New Conservatives, fronted by the relatively new but increasingly vocal backbench MPs Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, was another packed-out event Monday.

Veterans of Tory rebellions John Redwood and Bill Cash sent a video message. The caucus’ demands were varied but radical, covering everything from leaving the ECHR to clamping down on so-called gender ideology. The room went wild for former Tory Chair Jake Berry’s pledge against raising taxes.

Berry made clear the group will tell Sunak that taxes should not rise overall. Quizzed by the Sun on whether they’d be prepared to lose the Tory whip — essentially be suspended from the party — to vote against a budget if necessary, Berry insisted it would come to that.

Another big round of applause broke out as backbencher Tom Hunt declared: “It is not xenophobic to walk into your town center and not want to feel like you are in a foreign country.” This subsection of the party is clearly willing and able to lean into the culture wars come the next election.


Another unlikely rebel came in the form of West Midlands Tory mayor Andy Street, who usually slips into his party conference unnoticed and is scrupulously loyal.

A former boss of the popular department store John Lewis, Street has long had the ear of Downing Street and became a Tory posterboy of regional devolution.

But on Monday he held an impromptu press conference at Tory conference, warning Sunak in no uncertain terms against axing large parts of the expensive HS2 rail link. An announcement on scaling back the rail scheme is expected this week.

“You will be turning your back on an opportunity to level up — a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Street warned the PM, amid reports the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2 is for the chop.

His intervention led the BBC Six O’Clock News, ahead of Hunt’s keynote speech — the most-watched TV news show in the U.K.

For Sunak, it was yet another symbol of a party — and a party conference — spiraling out of his control.

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