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Sunak to seek conference reset with restive party and sceptical public

Rishi Sunak faces restless Conservative MPs as he heads to his first, and possibly, last annual conference as leader of a party that is anxious about the next general election and split over the country’s direction.

The UK prime minister is said by allies to be feeling upbeat as he prepares for his debut leader’s speech at the gathering, which starts in Manchester on Sunday.

He is expected to use the conference to issue a new “Plan for Motorists” aimed at winning over Britain’s drivers, a move that comes as he considers slashing back the UK’s most high-profile rail project High Speed 2.

But Sunak will arrive in Manchester under pressure from multiple factions of his party unhappy about issues such as HS2, the record tax burden built up under the Tories and threats the UK could quit the European Convention on Human Rights.

Parts of Sunak’s backbenches are growing increasingly agitated about the government’s direction and many MPs warn they are unconvinced by the ongoing Downing Street operation to reset the party’s dire electoral outlook.

Rishi Sunak is considering cutting the northern leg of the High Speed 2 rail project © Neil Hall/EPA/Shutterstock

Rightwing Tories have sounded the alarm over an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies published on Friday, which found that record tax rises since the last election will cost the equivalent of £3,500 per household.

The IFS said the current Conservative government, elected in 2019, had overseen the biggest rise in taxation in the UK since the second world war, with the tax burden set to rise to 37 per cent of national income.

Veteran rightwinger Sir John Redwood said Sunak is “under pressure to relieve the tax burden”. He argued that if the government “cut the right taxes in the right way” it would “promote good growth and actually get more revenue”.

Former home secretary Dame Priti Patel declared the tax burden on “hard-pressed” Britons “unsustainable”, as she told GB News the Tories should be “on the side of hard-working households” and should offer lower taxes.

Downing Street and the Treasury have said tackling inflation is the government’s current priority rather than delivering tax cuts — albeit while floating the idea of future inheritance tax reductions.

Tory MPs in the party’s centrist One Nation caucus have also expressed unease after home secretary Suella Braverman this week issued her most hardline rhetoric on refugees to date.

In a speech in Washington, she hinted that Britain could leave the ECHR if it continued to constrain the UK from enacting its policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, and criticised multiculturalism in the UK.

Sir Bob Neill, Tory chair of the Commons justice select committee, said that his constituents wanted action on small boats, but “not the rhetoric [Braverman] was using in the US”.

Home secretary Suella Braverman hinted that Britain could leave the European Convention on Human Rights © Stefan Rousseau/PA

Damian Green, chair of the One Nation group, warned that pulling out of the ECHR would “do massive damage to Britain’s international reputation” and “put in jeopardy” the Good Friday Agreement.

Several cabinet ministers are also strongly opposed to the move, according to government insiders.

Downing Street officials insist the government can tackle small boat crossings “in a way that’s consistent with our international obligations” and deny Braverman explicitly suggested Britain could leave the ECHR.

But tensions between Sunak and Braverman burst into public view after she said in her speech, widely viewed as a thinly veiled leadership pitch, that multiculturalism was a “misguided dogma” that had failed.

Sunak publicly rejected that claim, praising the UK’s “fantastic multicultural democracy” in an interview with the BBC on Thursday.

One centrist MP said the party’s “rightward turn and the prominence of Braverman” had angered colleagues, adding: “We’ve been quiet and loyal but that may not hold as we get towards an election.”

Whether MPs’ disquiet will erupt into the open in Manchester is unclear, as many MPs are avoiding the conference this year, with some citing their pessimistic view that the general election is already lost.

One former minister said that a reluctance among Tory MPs to campaign in the Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire by-elections was one sign of low morale in the party.

A government official said Sunak viewed the conference as a crucial opportunity to build on the message he made in his speech scaling back net zero targets earlier this month.

The prime minister will talk about “taking tough decisions for the long term and fixing problems rather than taking the easy way out”, the insider said.

Sunak’s “Plan for Motorists” is aimed at creating a political dividing line with Labour by claiming that the Tories are the only party that enthusiastically upholds the interests of car drivers.

A low-traffic neighbourhood in Haringey borough, London © Simon Leigh/Alamy

The prime minister is expected to promise a pushback on low-traffic neighbourhood schemes, a crackdown on parking charges and an attempt to limit 20mph speed zones in England. He is also thought likely to introduce new restrictions on enforcing box junction infringements while capping the number of hours a day that cars are banned from bus lanes.

The pitch comes as Sunak refuses to guarantee the northern leg of HS2 would be built. On Friday former prime minister Boris Johnson wrote that scrapping that part of the project would be a “betrayal of the North”.

One government official conceded the motoring announcements were “small beer” in policy terms, though still important in trying to portray the Conservatives as on the side of motorists and Labour as anti-car.

But some of Sunak’s backbenchers are blunt in describing what is at stake at the gathering of the party faithful: they see it as his last chance to set out a fresh stall and start improving the Tories’ dismal ratings in the polls.

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