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Sunak’s premiership under scrutiny at fractious Tory conference

It was not the upbeat start to the Conservatives’ annual conference that Rishi Sunak would have hoped for. As the grassroots gathered in Manchester on Sunday, the Tories’ favourite mayor declared that he would not bet on the party winning the general election, while future leadership contenders were accused of jostling for position.

Lord Ben Houchen, metro mayor of Tees Valley and the poster boy for the Tories’ levelling-up agenda, warned that the prime minister would have to strive harder to retain voters who supported the Conservatives at the previous election.

“We need to do more to give those people the excuse” to vote Tory again, Houchen told a fringe event, adding that the public was “not going to get behind a party” that has undergone as much turmoil as the Conservatives have in the past year or so.

His intervention came as Greg Hands, the party chair, conceded that the Conservatives were likely to enter the next election as the “underdogs” and acknowledged that activists had been facing “difficult conversations” with voters.

Seeking to bolster morale among delegates, Hands insisted that he had detected “no enthusiasm” for, and “even less trust in”, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on the doorstep.

Lord Ben Houchen, right, speaks to a delegate on Sunday © Charlie Bibby/FT

Nonetheless, Sunak’s leadership is also coming under increasing scrutiny, with two high-profile female Cabinet ministers breaking cover in the past week with political interventions viewed by colleagues as early pitches for the party leadership.

Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, used an interview with The Sunday Times on the eve of the party’s gathering to declare that Britain quitting the European Convention on Human Rights “needs to be on the table” and that the Conservatives must have an “honest conversation” about the prospect.

Her intervention came days after home secretary Suella Braverman also used a speech in the US to threaten that the UK could leave the ECHR if it blocks the government’s Rwanda deportation policy.

The moves have provoked anger among both ministers and backbenchers who believe that Badenoch and Braverman are on manoeuvres to attract support from party members, who will determine who is the next leader if the Tories lose power next year and whose views are typically to the right of the party’s wider voter base.

One Cabinet member said political posturing was also provoking frustration among party activists in Manchester: “Their question to us is: do we want to win or not?”

Rishi Sunak arrives at the conference hall on Sunday © Charlie Bibby/FT

Britain’s membership of the ECHR is an issue that risks cleaving the party, as One Nation Tory MPs are staunchly opposed to exiting the convention, as are several Cabinet ministers.

At a fringe event, Tom Tugendhat, the security minister who attends Cabinet, signalled his scepticism about exiting the convention by asking what it would mean for the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, which references it. Appearing alongside him, Michael Gove, the levelling-up secretary, insisted that the government must “keep every option open”, however.

On Monday, the New Conservatives, a group of rightwing Tory MPs led by rising stars of the 2019 intake Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, are hosting a rally in which they will go a step further and demand outright that Britain quits the ECHR and replaces it with a UK framework. The group is also calling for curbs on legal migration by halving the number of visas awarded to foreign workers.

Their challenge to Sunak comes at a time when his record in tackling clandestine migration is coming in for growing criticism as the subject grows in salience among voters. It has now overtaken the economy to become the most important issue to voters who backed the Conservatives at the most recent election, according to the pollster YouGov.

The prime minister will also face a challenge from the New Conservatives to pivot to the right on other issues too, including banning “gender ideology” from being taught in schools and committing to tax cuts.

Delegates listen in at the conference © Charlie Bibby/FT

Meanwhile, former prime minister Liz Truss, former home secretary Dame Priti Patel, and former business secretary Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg will host a separate two-hour “Great British growth rally” on Monday, at which they will ratchet up demands for pre-election giveaways.

The prospect of further disunity provoked glee among Labour insiders. Shadow minister Jon Ashworth claimed that the Conservatives were “too divided and too distracted to take Britain forward”, adding that Sunak was “too weak” to assert control of his party.

The future outline of HS2 is another theme threatening to overshadow the government’s messaging at its conference. Houchen said ministers’ “indecision” on the matter was causing a “distraction”.

Sunak tried to change the conversation from rail to roads, seeking to highlight his plans to tackle the so-called “war on motorists” regarding 20 mile per hour speed limits and low-traffic neighbourhoods.

Speaking to the BBC, Sunak rejected critics’ charge that scaling back HS2 would leave Britain a “laughing stock”, but the prime minister refused to offer clarity on his plans for the high-speed rail project as the government reviews the future of key elements, including the Birmingham to Manchester leg.

He was also challenged about remarks made by Iceland boss Richard Walker, who claimed that the Conservatives were “drifting out of touch” with the needs of business, the environment and “everyday people”.

Walker announced in The Observer that he had quit the party, cancelling his membership and leaving the parliamentary candidates’ list. Tory insiders have accused him of lashing out at the party over sour grapes at his failure to date to have been selected for a seat.

Sunak insisted that his actions, including weakening net zero policies, prioritised working people, and added: “Change may be uncomfortable for people . . . I believe on doing the right thing for the country.”

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