By Jacob Winter, BA Politics and International Relations
This year’s Conservative Party conference has revealed a series of new policies and potential agendas for the party in the run-up to the next election. Amongst those discussed was a new set of restrictions on cigarette smoking, following New Zealand’s example of a complete ban on cigarettes for anyone born after a certain year. Alongside this was a proposal to replace A-Levels and T-Levels, with English and Mathematics to now be taught up until the age of 18. Far more controversial was the cancellation of the HS2 railway’s Birmingham to Manchester route, with the money instead being reinvested in smaller public transport projects.
The conference comes at a time when Tory Party support and confidence in the Prime Minister is at an all-time low. The Independent reports that only a quarter of the electorate claimed that Rishi Sunak would make the best Prime Minister at the next election. Following the conference, this dropped to one in five voters. Likewise, 13 years of Tory governance – alongside issues to do with the handling of Brexit and scandals like Partygate – has led to the party being projected to lose 154 seats at the next general election.
“Sunak’s set of new policies followed his claim that ‘It is time for a change – and we are it.”
The Party’s dire straits were acknowledged by Sunak at the conference, but the mood and tone remained hopeful. Sunak’s set of new policies followed his claim that ‘It is time for a change – and we are it.’ The controversial cancellation of the Northern leg of HS2 fed into this, with former Tory Prime Ministers David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson all criticising the plans to cancel the project. Likewise, the plan to scrap T-Levels, a Tory party initiative, was seen by some observers as another attempt to remake the party’s image.
The planned scrapping of A-Levels and T-Levels – to be replaced with a new ‘Advanced British Standard’ which covers more subjects – was meant to demonstrate Sunak’s commitment to long-term governance; the plan will supposedly take more than a decade to introduce. Following teacher strikes this year and a recruitment and retention crisis for those who teach key subjects like Maths and English, the government also proposed a doubled bonus for new teachers of upwards of £30,000 over the first five years of their career. No comment was made as to where the extra £600 million needed to finance this move would come from.
At the conference, Sunak engaged in what the Guardian’s Helena Horton described as ‘culture wars,’ focusing on the supposed ‘war against motorists’ rather than serious policy. In the light of the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, where the Conservatives held onto their seat by campaigning against ULEZ, the Tory party has increased its rhetoric against calls for greater environmental action. This was on full display at the conference, where the Net Zero secretary, Claire Coutinho, accused Shadow Energy Secretary Ed Milliband of being a ‘radical’ to whom ‘Net Zero was a religion.’ Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, echoed this sentiment claiming that belief in Net Zero and other environmental causes were a ‘luxury belief.’
The final question many will have after the conference relates to whether these speeches were merely platitudes, and how many of these proposals will actually make it into the Tory’s next manifesto. With vague promises from Sunak and his cabinet and existing policies being scrapped, the party is in a worse position than it was before the conference in the eyes of the electorate. 47% of voters claim they would vote Labour, as opposed to 24% who said they would vote Conservative. If the party is to maintain their 13 year-long hold on parliament, something more substantial than a smoking ban and A-level reform may well, therefore, be necessary.