Ask Me Anything

Conservative Party conference explained: John Rentoul answers your questions

Our chief political correspondent John Rentoul answers your questions on HS2, the smoking ban and what’s next for the Conservatives following Rishi Sunak’s first keynote speech as party leader

Friday 06 October 2023 15:15 BST
Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty wave at the end of his speech
Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty wave at the end of his speech (AFP via Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak has been under fire this week following his first Conservative Party conference speech.

Not one but two former Tory prime ministers attacked Mr Sunak’s plans to ditch the northern leg of HS2 and ban young people from ever being able to buy cigarettes.

While Liz Truss said she would vote against plans to eradicate smoking, David Cameron said that a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” had been lost in scrapping HS2.

In his keynote speech, the PM also set out plans to replace A-levels and make pupils study maths and English to age 18 and pledged to spend the £36bn saved from HS2 to boost transport projects across the country

But what has the conference taught us about the current state of the Conservative Party? And what do the prime minister’s plans mean for the future of Tories?

Here are six questions following Tory Party conference that came from Independent readers during an ‘Ask Me Anything’ - and my answers.

Q: Why are they not talking about housing, we are the worst country in the modern world when it comes to finding an affordable home.


A: There were two shocking omissions from Rishi Sunak’s conference speech: one was the cost of living, which was mentioned only in passing when he talked about the importance of halving inflation, and the other was housing.Obviously, you can’t put everything in a leader’s speech, but Sunak could have cut out the weird and inauthentic “we are the change” stuff and put in a paragraph about housing, especially as Labour continues to face both ways on the issue of existing residents’ rights vs national targets for house-building. Most recently, Labour MPs voted to maintain needlessly strict environmental rules that prevent thousands of houses being built.

Q: How much influence do the national conservatives have in the ideology of the Tory party? How do you see this evolve?

Real European

A: My impression from Manchester is that the Trussites and Farageistes are two overlapping minorities in the Tory party – more numerous among grassroots members than among MPs, but a minority all the same, even added together. They are different things: the “national conservatives” are closed-border nationalists (Suella Braverman), whereas Truss stood for a more incoherent grouping of liberal market fundamentalists, who prioritise growth more, which is why she and Braverman fell out.

A lot depends on whether the Tories lose the election, and if so, how badly. If Labour has a secure majority, say over 40, the Tory membership could take another holiday from reality, as Michael Gove described the Truss interregnum, and embrace Farageism, if not actual Farage. The effect that will have on the wider electorate can be gauged by the fact that Dominic Cummings thought Farage was too toxic to be allowed near the official Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum.

If Labour has a small majority, or there is a hung parliament, though, I think the Tory instinct for self-preservation will kick in. I don’t know how good Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt or James Cleverly would be as leader of the opposition, but they won’t have much to do with “national conservatism”.

Q: Is Cummings advising Sunak to go for big projects such as cancelling HS2?

David Noble

A: One anonymous insider has been quoted saying that Cummings’s advice to Rishi Sunak was: “Do the mental stuff that proves you’re not the Establishment.” That would be a cunning plan, or even a Cummings plan, worthy of Baldrick of Blackadder.

On that reading of the Tory conference, the presentational disaster of the prime minister refusing for three weeks to confirm that HS2 to Manchester would go ahead, while denying that a decision had been made, was all deliberate. It was designed to draw attention to Sunak making a big, controversial decision that would appeal to swing voters – not just because small transport projects are more credible than big ones but because it hammers home the message that the prime minister is careful with taxpayers’ money.

Well, it is a theory, isn’t it? I don’t buy it. It is true that Cummings has long been opposed to HS2, and that cutting HS2 could be popular with some swing voters – not least because it suggests the PM is careful with taxpayers’ money – but I think this was a decision that was supposed to be announced at the time of the autumn statement (22 November). Except that The Independent’s Jon Stone spotted the significance of some Treasury documents snapped by a photographer.

Q: With Johnson and Cameron both criticising the HS2 debacle, has there ever been a conference where a leader has been so openly ridiculed?

Rob Harding

A: Some people have short memories, Rob! I remember last year’s Tory conference, when Liz Truss had a rough time...

Q: Re the smoking ban, do they not know that prohibition will only make smoking more attractive to the young?

Ellis Wayman

I’m a liberal, and think a total ban is heavy handed, especially as smoking was declining in popularity anyway. But I was wrong about banning smoking in enclosed public spaces, which I objected to on similar grounds. It turned out to be a good idea, supported by smokers themselves. Smoking is on the way out, so it might even be worth copying Jacinda Ardern to get rid of it altogether. I found that section of Sunak’s speech surprisingly convincing.

Q: Will Sunak be weaker not as a result of cancelling HS2 (bad enough) but the fact he blatantly lied about it?

Tom Burgess

A: I’m against the use of the l-word. Sunak relied on semantics to hold the line before the formal announcement in his speech, but I don’t think it is a big deal. As far as I can make out, the PM had made the decision in principle by the time The Independent reported that he was in talks with Jeremy Hunt about HS2 phase 2 three weeks ago. Indeed, he had been sceptical about the case for HS2 for at least two years, and had tried to trim and postpone parts of the project already, but was now coming up to a decision for the autumn statement.

But a decision in principle is not a final decision, and technically that wasn’t made until the cabinet agreed it in a hotel room the night before the PM’s speech. And in practice, a decision is not a decision until it is announced, because ministers can always change their mind at the last moment.

I think Sunak was weakened by the rolling presentational disaster of not confirming for three weeks that the line would run to Manchester, and being forced to announce, in Manchester, that it wouldn’t. But a lot of voters will agree with the decision, and overlook the chaos of the way it was announced.

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