ANALYSIS – Sunak Tries to Distance Himself From Tory Predecessors at Manchester Conference

MOSCOW, October 6 (Sputnik) – UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tried to distance himself from previous Conservative governments at the party conference, which demonstrated divisions and lack of coherent policy program among the Tories, experts told Sputnik.

Speaking at the 2023 Conservative Party conference, held in Manchester from October 1-4, the prime minister announced the scrapping of several major policies that were backed by Tory leaders in the past, such as Net Zero and the northern leg of the HS2 high-speed rail line, calling the latter “the ultimate example of the old consensus.” In a similar vein, Sunak also claimed that the people of the United Kingdom are unsatisfied with the functioning of the country’s political system, which has been prioritizing easy decisions over the right ones for the last 30 years, which he described as a period of “rhetorical ambitions” focused on short-term advantages.

“Rishi Sunak ended his speech by claiming that he and his party represent the change that Britain needs. By doing so, he was implying that previous Conservative prime ministers – [David] Cameron, [Theresa] May, [Boris] Johnson and [Liz] Truss – had taken the country down the wrong path. It is unlikely that this tactic will succeed; after all, Sunak himself was part of Theresa May’s government and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Boris Johnson. However, the reputation of these governments is not good so Sunak has little choice but to claim that he is different, as shown in his announcements on HS2 and Net Zero,” Mark Garnett, a senior lecturer at the department of politics, philosophy and religion at Lancaster University, said.

Peter Dorey, professor of British politics at Cardiff University, is of a similar opinion, saying that Sunak’s attempt to present himself as a new leader who will deliver change only concerns some policy areas as there have not been any new policies to deal with the issues of inequality, poverty, low pay, workers’ rights, job security or curbing corporate tax evasion, and strengthening public services through improved investment. He noted that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt had repeated the policies of the last 14 years, such as cracking down on the unemployed, further curbing the welfare state.

“Abandoning HS2 is an interesting one. Some Conservatives see it as an economically sensible decision which Sunak has been brave and correct to take, while others in the Party see it as a betrayal of northern Red Wall voters and the ‘levelling-up’ agenda. It has rather divided Conservative MPs; some welcome the decision, others are angry,” Dorey said, adding that the postponement of Net Zero is part of a “culture war” waged by the Tories against those seeking to address climate change by portraying them as “anti-car’ or “anti-economic growth.”

Anthony Webber, a former elected member of Guernsey’s Parliament (1991-2004), who is now an independent commentator involved in political media work, thinks that Sunak is unlikely to succeed because of how long the Conservative Party has been in power, making it hard for the public to believe his assertions.

“The HS2 decision is very questionable and will only bring about division in the party. It goes against the theme of the conference, which was ‘Long-Term Decisions for a Brighter Future.’ HS2 was a long-term project and the decision only demonstrates a weakening of the ability to plan long-term, something the more sensible governments in the world do,” Webber, who attended the conference as an independent political commentator, said.

Webber also pointed out Sunak’s previous commitment to Net Zero, adding that the prime minister cannot claim to be distancing himself from his own policies.

“He has simply moved the goalposts in his own goal with Net Zero, and the end objectives are still the same. Why is he trying to bring about the perception that he is the man to bring about change? The reason is solely for electoral purposes. He saw in the recent Uxbridge by-election that the Conservative party candidate opposing the London Mayor’s ULEZ policies ensured that he had a narrow victory over the Labour contender,” the expert stated.


Apart from being major departures from his party’s previous course, Sunak’s recent decisions have been made seemingly unilaterally, without going through Parliament or consulting with other stakeholders. When asked whether such an approach to governance could backfire, the experts suggested that it would depend on the decisions themselves.

“Sunak has made key announcements himself but seems to have consulted with the cabinet. His executive-centred style is similar to those of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair; for him, as for them, the extent of backlash in his party depends on whether or not it likes the policies, not on the way in which they were made,” Garnett explained.

Dorey told Sputnik that if Sunak’s decisions prove to be popular, Conservative lawmakers will praise him for having “courage” and “wisdom” and favorably compare the Tory leader to his Labour counterpart, Keir Starmer, who gets criticized for for being dull or indecisive.

“If, however, Sunak independently takes decisions which are unpopular in the Conservative Party, or among the British public, he will be accused of arrogance, poor judgement and becoming out-of-touch,” Dorey added.

Webber, for his part, observed that all the decisions regarding HS2 were made in Parliament with a by-partisan agreement, and “it is disrespectful of Parliamentary democracy for a new Prime Minister to be so arrogant as to think that he alone has just dismissed many years of consensus on the issue.”

“It is very possible that there will be a backlash in the party, especially as former Prime Ministers have been critical of his decision, and the way it came about and was presented,” he continued.


As the Tories are heading for a drubbing in the next general election, it was imperative for Sunak to unite the party behind himself and his vision, however the conference does not show the Tories in a positive light, according to the experts.

“Since the Conservatives are a long way behind in the opinion polls the conference seemed to project a surprising degree of confidence. However, rather than pulling the party together, it has shown the extent of divisions, particularly in view of the favourable receptions given by many members of the party to Sunak’s critic Liz Truss and the ambitious populist Suella Braverman,” Garnett concluded.

Webber described the conference as “quite flat,” apart from some speeches and meetings, and “even a little boring.” According to the expert, Sunak said nothing substantial to unite the party.

“He might have given some cheer to parts of the party, but surely the purpose of a party conference is to unite the party and from there inspire the country to vote for you at the next General Election. It will be no surprise if Rishi Sunak is no longer Prime Minister at the time of the next election,” Webber suggested.

Dorey, while just as critical, found the latest Conservative conference “one of the most bizarre ever,” featuring “a series of policy proposals which are either contradictory, or not among the major concerns of most British people.”

“Some of the populist or most Right-wing speeches at Conference should also be understood in terms of the next Conservative leadership contest. Some Ministers (especially [Home Secretary] Suella Braverman) were looking beyond the general election, when they expect Rishi Sunak to resign. Their speeches were therefore intended to attract support from the Conservative Party’s MPs and members, in the hope that they will be elected to lead the Party after Sunak, and then drag it even further to the authoritarian populist Right,” Dorey warned.