This week, in Manchester, England, the most ambitious politicians from the Conservative party are attempting to win over their grassroots supporters. However, they are quick to clarify that this is not an official bid for leadership.
As the Conservative party convenes in Manchester for their yearly conference, presenting a cohesive message before the upcoming election is not the sole focus of the meeting.
According to recent polls, there is a possibility that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak could face a significant loss in the upcoming general election. This has led some of his ambitious colleagues to privately contemplate who could potentially succeed him.
The party conference has previously served as a measure of grassroots backing for potential leaders. Given the upcoming general election in either spring or fall, this may be the final event before voters make their decision on Sunak.
POLITICO interviewed current and former Conservative advisors and ministers, some of whom were given anonymity to openly discuss the party’s internal dynamics, in order to gauge the current state of affairs.
Here we go again
The Conservative Party has experienced a similar situation in the past. In 2018, Boris Johnson attracted large audiences with a speech at the conference sidelines during the intense Brexit debates within the party. In less than a year, he became the new prime minister, replacing Theresa May.
One former minister expressed frustration at the fact that there will be three or four individuals vying for leadership at the conference.
A counselor to a current Cabinet member confessed to being occupied with adding content to their superior’s party conference address in an attempt to enhance their conservative reputation.
However, a significant portion of activity may be occurring without much attention. According to a former advisor to a past Conservative leadership contender, party conference serves as a crucial opportunity for behind-the-scenes discussions to assess the backing of influential individuals, such as newspaper editors.
According to the same individual, openly displaying your aspirations comes with potential dangers. They cautioned, “You must exercise caution in not attracting too much notice to yourself, as it will be obvious that you are aiming for the top position.”
It would not be wise to act at this time as you are still unfamiliar with the current situation. Rishi remains the prime minister and has the power to create obstacles. Even if he does not, there are individuals in No. 10 who can hold grudges and act in a petty manner, according to a former advisor to a past Conservative leader contender.
A member of the Conservative party who supports Sunak expressed disapproval towards any actions that could be seen as attempts to gain leadership. They stated, “It’s great for the supporting cast to have a moment in the spotlight during the show, but they must remember their role as backing singers.”
Potential leaders may have to be patient for their chance to shine, as Sunak has allegedly stated to friends that he may remain in his position as caretaker even if the Conservatives do not win the upcoming election.
This is a compilation of polls for the UK’s national parliamentary election.
To access additional polling information from various European countries, please visit POLITICO’s Poll of Polls.
Charming the right
Not many MPs are open about their desire for leadership, but attending a party conference can spark speculation.
After strategically aligning herself with the free-market faction of her party, Liz Truss, the former Prime Minister, has emerged as the victorious candidate in the 2022 Conservative leadership race. Despite her subsequent downfall, Truss’ approach has brought attention to the ideology of this particular group within the party.
Last Sunday, Kemi Badenoch, who ran for leader last year, was the main guest at a combined event hosted by the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Taxpayer Alliance. These two think tanks were closely linked to Truss.
Badenoch’s allies have consistently refuted claims that she is preparing for another attempt at the highest position. However, her recent interview with the Sunday Times, in which she discusses topics favored by the right-wing such as the expenses of achieving net zero and the potential departure from the European Convention on Human Rights, will likely only fuel further speculation about her future plans.
At the same time, beyond the protected area, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary who has previously considered running for office, was the main speaker at the lavish black tie dinner held by the Conservative Democratic Organisation in central Manchester on Sunday evening. The organization’s president, Peter Cruddas, a major Conservative donor, has been highly critical of Sunak’s leadership and has been advocating for greater influence for grassroots members.
Suella Braverman, the current Home Secretary, recently gave a speech in Washington urging global leaders to reconsider and update the 70-year-old U.N. Refugee Convention. On Tuesday, she will be the main guest at the Daily Express newspaper’s Common Sense Group and Blue Collar Conservatives reception. This group includes several outspoken right-wing members of the party.
David Frost, a former negotiator for Brexit who is now a Conservative peer running to become an elected MP, has a busy conference itinerary. He will be speaking at various events organized by prominent right-leaning think tanks such as the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), the Legatum Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), and Policy Exchange, where he holds a position as a senior fellow.
Taking the center
Experienced Conservatives warn that if a leadership contest takes place after the general election, the landscape within the party could change significantly.
According to Conservative peer and polling specialist Robert Hayward, MPs with low approval ratings may need to prioritize their own re-election before considering running for office or supporting a particular candidate.
“If the outcome of the national election reveals that a large number of moderate Conservative supporters have abandoned you, then trying to win over the IEA seems quite foolish,” stated the second advisor mentioned.
Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, holds a lesser-known position in the government. Despite this, she has a devoted following among moderate conservatives wherever she speaks. She is scheduled to speak at a late-night event with the group “Next Gen Tories” at the Midland Hotel this year.
Mordaunt participated in both of last year’s Conservative leadership competitions and received backing from the party’s center. However, she is one of the potential candidates for leadership who may lose her seat in the House of Commons if the Conservatives do not improve their standing in the polls. Despite having a comfortable majority of 15,780, her Portsmouth North constituency, which remained unchanged in a recent review, was previously held by Labour under Tony Blair.
According to a member of her 2022 campaign team, she remains determined to achieve her goal of becoming a leader, despite her previous experience of being in the international spotlight during King Charles’ coronation.
Beyond the front line
In 2022, 11 Tory candidates have announced their bids for leadership, leading to speculation that the field could be just as crowded when the time comes to replace Sunak. Another former minister believes that there could be up to 20 individuals who believe they are qualified for the position.
Several social media posts by former Justice Secretary Brandon Lewis caught the attention of his colleagues. However, the second ex-minister did not completely disregard Lewis, stating, “He is not affected by all the previous events.”
Lewis, a past housing minister who has been a strong advocate for increased house construction, will be participating in three side events discussing housing and the strict planning regulations surrounding Britain’s green belt.
Despite having a broad scope, certain members of the Conservative party anticipate feeling dissatisfied with the offerings of a party that has seen five different prime ministers in the span of eight years.
A current government official expressed disappointment in the lack of prominent figures like Callaghan, Heseltine, and Geoffrey Howe. They pointed out that while Thatcher was in power for decades, newer arrivals are already vying for leadership roles after just a short time.