Rishi Sunak tries to resurrect a Conservative Party that appears resigned to electoral defeat

The British Prime Minister is promising a tough stance on undocumented immigration. He has also proposed a plan to gradually ban smoking and has attacked the trans movement

Rishi Sunak Partido Conservador
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murthy, at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, on Wednesday, October 4, 2023.HANNAH MCKAY (REUTERS)
Rafa de Miguel

It’s a textbook political trick. When the party’s brand suffers from irreversible wear-and-tear, you have to hide the party… and make the candidate shine.

At the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Akshata Murthy —Rishi Sunak’s wife— introduced the British prime minister, with a tone right out of American-style political marketeering: “Rishi is working hard to do the right thing for the country, not just for now, but for the long-term.” Then, turning to her husband, she said: “You don’t know how proud your daughters and I are of you.”

Murthy is the daughter of Narayana Murthy, the Indian billionaire who founded Inofsys, a digital services conglomerate. The British first lady used warm words to introduce “Rishi,” who assumed office in October of 2022. She also tried out the slogan that the Conservative Party leader intends to use as he makes a last-ditch attempt to resurrect a party that has resigned itself to electoral defeat: “Long-Term Decisions for a Brighter Future.” PM Sunak is trying to pull together faithful Conservatives, moderate voters and the hard-right before the next UK general elections, which will take place in January of 2025 at the latest. However, in recent weeks, the buzz suggests that the public can expect an election to be called in April of 2024.

All the announcements made by Sunak in recent weeks — including those he incorporated into his closing speech at Wednesday’s congress — involve the same triple political juggling act: challenging the establishment (quite an ask for a Conservative Party that has been in power for 13 years), present yourself as the candidate of change… and inject a mix of populism and technocracy into your decisions. This seems to consist of reversing ongoing projects, or announcing new ones.

“Whenever we’re presented with a false consensus of public opinion, we will challenge it. Where private interests try to prevail over the needs of the majority of citizens, we will stop them. And when common sense is attacked… we will defend it,” Sunak assured his party members. Everyone present has understood his strategy, although many still view it with a dose of skepticism.

With the phrase “false consensus,” Sunak is referring to decisions that have cost the British Treasury the most, which were supported by an understanding between the Conservatives and the Labour Party. The incumbent prime minister blames these decisions for economic inertia in the country. An example is the HS2 infrastructure project, which was launched by Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour government in 2009, to connect London and the north of England with a high speed rail line. Work began in 2017… and so far, it has only reached Birmingham. The initial budget — of 72 billion pounds, or $88 billion — has nearly doubled. On top of that, the rail line’s final phase — projected to be completed in 2029 — was delayed until 2033. Against the wishes of many of his MPs, Sunak has canceled the next phases — which were set to extend up to Manchester and Leeds — to instead use the budgeted money for new rail and road plans between the east and the west of the country.

“I already know that I will be attacked for this decision. They will say it shows a lack of ambition,” Sunak told the party faithful. “People in the party whom I respect will oppose it. But believe me, there’s nothing ambitious about continuing to pour more and more money into the wrong project. There is no long-term planning if you ignore where the real infrastructure needs are,” the prime minister affirmed.

The same argument of a “false consensus” has also been used by Sunak to defend his decision to delay a large part of the commitments made by the British government in the fight against climate change. He presents these reversals as “brave” decisions, which have the support of the people and will help relieve the pockets of commuters, truck drivers and households. However, according to public opinion surveys, even Conservative voters don’t support these delays.

A gradual plan to ban smoking

After more than a decade of his party’s rule, the only way for Sunak — a candidate who was not chosen by either the membership of his party, nor the voters (he was acclaimed by the Conservative MPs) — to get the attention of a tired citizenry is to present an avalanche of new promises.

Alongside the infrastructure plan to develop the impoverished north of England, the prime minister has also promised reforms to improve the effectiveness of the National Health Service. He has assured the public there will be more rigor in the distribution of social benefits, to force beneficiaries to return to the labor market. Sunak has also announced a revolution in the UK’s educational system, with the implementation of a system that will require all students to study mathematics and English literature until the age of 18.

On the subject of youth, the PM used the party congress to launch a surprise measure: a lifetime ban on smoking for minors. This proposed policy is similar to the one implemented by the government of New Zealand. “I propose that, in the future, we increase the legal smoking age by one year every year. That way, a 14-year-old will no longer be able to buy cigarettes for the rest of his life,” Sunak explained. By imposing a ban on the sale of tobacco to anyone born on or after January 1, 2009 — and increasing the legal smoking age (currently 18 years in the UK) by one year each year — the habit could be completely eliminated among young people by 2040.

Aware that the most libertarian sector of his party will gnash their teeth at such a prohibitive measure, Sunak announced that, when the time comes, he will not impose voting discipline on his caucus. For now, he has simply managed to change the direction of a new national debate.

Brexit, immigration and the trans movement

Rishi Sunak also hasn’t missed the opportunity to remind his party membership that he was an early defender of the alleged virtues of Brexit. And, despite the disappointment that that divorce from the EU has caused — among both eurosceptic and moderate voters — the prime minister continued to express optimism. “Since we left the single market, we have grown faster than France or Germany… not despite Brexit, but thanks to Brexit,” he said in his speech. This argument will lead more than one economist to raise their eyebrows.

The speech was a defense of supposed conservative “values,” which masked the cultural war that the prime minister has decided to champion against the left — particularly against the trans movement. His government has already announced that it will prevent men who have undergone a gender transition from entering female hospital wards. He will also prevent those convicted of sexual crimes from getting gender-altering surgery. “They shouldn’t intimidate us or make us believe that people can be whatever sex they want to be. They cannot. A man is a man and a woman is a woman,” he proclaimed.

Sunak has defended his new policy against irregular immigration, which includes future deportations to Rwanda, floating prisons to house those who arrive on the shores of the UK, as well as huge legal obstacles to prevent migrants from applying for asylum. Without using the harsh language deployed by Minister of Interior Suella Braverman, the prime minister has sounded equally defiant against international laws that hinder his objectives, such as the European Convention on Human Rights. “I believe that our strategy is in line with our international commitments. But I assure you that I will do whatever is necessary to stop the boats from reaching our shores,” Sunak promised.

The Conservative Congress in Manchester has been overshadowed by the party’s hard-right. Messages of extreme populism have shown how far the party has drifted since Brexit. Sunak — while trying to draw from all sources, be it populism or technocracy — runs the risk of leaving the party’s gathering in a more blurred state than when he entered it.

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