DAN HODGES: This week won’t be about reviving Rishi’s fortunes – it will be about rivals pitching to be the next leader
Tory officials have nicknamed it Operation Swooping Eagle. ‘We’re deploying the whole media team,’ one senior staffer explained to me. ‘We’re even bussing in press officers from the regions. We know who journalists have identified as the potential leadership candidates, so we’re going to make sure they’re being covered at every event and fringe meeting they attend. We’re not going to be blindsided like we have been at previous party conferences.’
Rishi Sunak had been hoping this week’s gathering of the party faithful would see the relaunch of his premiership, and a transformation in his political fortunes. But those hopes are set to be dashed.
Instead, the Conservative Party conference will mark the unofficial launch of the next Tory leadership election. Home Secretary Suella Braverman couldn’t even be bothered to wait until she arrived at the gathering in Manchester. Last Tuesday, she jetted to Washington to address the American Enterprise Institute on the failures of multiculturalism and the existential challenges posed by immigration. Though the handful of US policy wonks and activists weren’t her target audience.
‘It was a pretty blatant leadership pitch, aimed at our party members,’ one Minister observed. ‘She did it in the US so No 10 couldn’t exert any control over her message.’
Initially, Downing Street attempted to claim the speech had been delivered with the PM’s blessing, but that fiction was quickly exposed when Sunak pointedly and repeatedly failed to endorse her comments.
The Conservative Party conference will mark the unofficial launch of the next Tory leadership election, writes DAN HODGES. Home Secretary Suella Braverman jetted to Washington (pictured) to address the American Enterprise Institute on the failures of multiculturalism and the existential challenges posed by immigration
‘Our country has done an incredibly good job of integrating people,’ he said tersely in an interview with BBC Leicester.
Braverman and her allies are unconcerned about irritating Sunak. She enjoys the support of her close political friend John Hayes and the 40-strong Common Sense group of Tory backbenchers. And they believe her outspoken messaging is in tune with Tory foot-soldiers and the wider public.
A number of them spent the week briefing journalists that Braverman’s comments were designed to put pressure on the European Supreme Court, as it prepares to deliver a ruling on the Government’s Rwanda deportation strategy. Ministers reacted with fury, claiming her words actually made a negative ruling more likely.
But Team Braverman are unrepentant. ‘They think it’s win-win,’ a Cabinet colleague explained. ‘Either Brussels gives our Rwanda policy the green light, in which case she’s delivered her policy against the odds; or it blocks it, and she can claim she’s been undermined by woke judges and lawyers. Either way, it’s what she thinks she needs to frame her leadership challenge.’
But by positioning herself unashamedly on the Right of her party, Braverman is contesting increasingly crowded political territory.
Tomorrow, MP Miriam Cates will join colleagues from the New Conservative group at a rally to launch a push for ‘five alternative pledges’ they want inserted into the Tories’ Election manifesto. The specific policies are under wraps, but I understand they will focus on human rights and equality law, education, tax and ‘the woke agenda’. According to one Cates ally, ‘they are basically all the things Rishi Sunak and No 10 are always umming and ahh-ing about, but not actually doing anything about’.
Cates has a relatively low profile but is seen as one of the Tory Right’s brightest rising stars. A former science teacher, the MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge in Yorkshire has warned that Western society is threatened by what she terms ‘Cultural Marxism’ and falling birth rates. ‘She’s from the faith, flag and family wing of the party,’ one Minister explained. ‘But she’s a contender now. She’s got a base among backbenchers.’
There is very little Rishi Sunak can do to stop potential candidates to succeed him as Tory leader using the next four days to peddle their political wares
The question is whether she has sufficient name-recognition with grassroot members. Currently, the mantle ‘Darling Of The Tory Associations’ rests firmly with Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch. The 43-year-old continues to top the influential ConHome Cabinet approval survey, and surprised Westminster with a strong insurgent showing in last year’s contest to succeed Boris Johnson. That performance was based on her articulate, traditionalist stance on cultural issues, and she is preparing to use her conference speech to flesh out a broader economic vision.
As well as her popularity among ordinary members, she is also said to be receiving regular campaigning advice from svengali-like Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove. ‘Michael’s been very quiet the last few months,’ one Cabinet colleague observed. ‘And when he goes quiet, you know he’s up to something.’
While the field of candidates on the Right is increasingly crowded, the Tory’s liberal One Nation wing has markedly fewer options. Security Minister Tom Tugendhat put in a creditable leadership bid 12 months ago but is said to be uncertain about whether to run again. Which leaves Leader of the House – and famous wielder of the Coronation sword – Penny Mordaunt. She has been impressing colleagues with a series of acerbic performances in the Commons. And she has reportedly been putting in yeoman’s duty on a national tour of beleaguered Tory constituencies.
‘Penny’s been on the road all year,’ one impressed Tory official said. ‘She’s been to more than 100 seats, and raised over £500,000 for the party. She didn’t even have a holiday over the summer.’
Some Tory MPs are openly starting to contemplate the prospect of all-out civil war in the wake of a substantial General Election defeat. ‘It’ll be carnage!’ one Minister told me. ‘We’re looking at ten years in opposition at a minimum.’ Which is why there are increasing whispers about Foreign Secretary James Cleverly emerging as a possible unity candidate. He was a close ally of Boris Johnson, and backed him during his abortive attempt to return in the wake of Liz Truss’s self-defenestration. But he is trusted by Downing Street and respected across all wings of the party. There are, however, questions about whether he would want the role, given his wife’s successful recent battle against breast cancer.
The PM’s ratings remain dire. Message discipline at No 10 has collapsed, with leaks and contradictory lines on net zero, HS2 and inheritance tax. And after a cascade of policy announcements, the cupboard for his own conference speech has been left dangerously bare
Though speculation about his prospects will inevitably intensify given his suspiciously timely appearance on the cover of the conference edition of The House Magazine. ‘He was given the OK to do it by Downing Street!’ an aide insisted.
There is one other possible contender, though he will be notable this week primarily through his absence. ‘Boris will not attend conference,’ a friend confirmed.
But Westminster watchers have noted that after a period of dignified silence, the former PM has begun to dip his stubby toe back into political waters with a series of discreet interventions in his Daily Mail column on Ukraine, net zero and HS2. Allies insist this is primarily about protecting his legacy. But one Minister told me: ‘Boris is just reminding people, ‘I’m still here if you think you need me.’ ‘
Rishi Sunak needs people to be reminded of this like he needs a hole in the head. But there is very little he can do to stop potential candidates to succeed him as Tory leader using the next four days to peddle their political wares.
The PM’s ratings remain dire. Message discipline at No 10 has collapsed, with leaks and contradictory lines on net zero, HS2 and inheritance tax. And after a cascade of policy announcements, the cupboard for his own conference speech has been left dangerously bare.
Meanwhile, Sir Keir Starmer and Labour are licking their lips, waiting to exploit any divisions.
‘The party conference is an opportunity to reset the agenda and regain the initiative,’ a Minister told me a few days ago. It may well be. But there’s no guarantee it will be Rishi Sunak who seizes it.
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