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Why are we still banging on about Europe?

Ewan Edwards

'While parents are worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life - we were banging on about Europe.'

That isn't an insight into Rishi Sunak's Conservative Party conference speech, but perhaps it should be. In fact, it was David Cameron's in 2006 and in those all too famous words uttered by another Prime Minister toppled by Europe: 'nothing has changed'.

While the country is far from the turbulence experienced during the 2022 Tory conference, which unfolded in the aftermath of Queen Elizabeth II's passing and the tumultuous Liz Truss premiership, you would not be alone in feeling that this United Kingdom still isn't very united. Last year's conference witnessed Truss and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, reversing their stance on abolishing the 45% tax rate: a pivotal moment that marked the downfall of Britain's shortest-serving Prime Minister.

Considering the events of last year's conference, it is almost certain that Rishi Sunak will prioritise maintaining strict control over this year's proceedings. With an already tightly managed communications team overseeing Number 10, Sunak will likely seek to keep figures like Liz Truss and Nadine Dorries out of the public eye as much as possible.

Sunak has undeniably adopted a page from the David Cameron playbook, positioning himself as a composed and sensible leader. This comes as no surprise to political commentators, given that one of Sunak's closest confidants is William Hague, now Baron Hague of Richmond, whom he succeeded as MP for Richmond and played a pivotal role in the Cameron project.

Recent reports from The Telegraph have highlighted Hague's influence as a key voice in changing Sunak’s mind about resigning from Boris Johnson’s government after the pair received a fixed penalty notice over lockdown breaches in April 2022.

Dealing with the European Union in a rational and measured style has also not been seen since Cameron's premiership. Regardless of one's stance on Brexit — and Sunak frequently emphasises his Brexit credentials — maintaining diplomatic relations such as those shown through the Windsor Framework remains crucial for the nation's progress. There is a stark contrast between Sunak's management of Europe and that of the human hand grenade Liz Truss and the bumbling buffoon Boris Johnson. 

Sunak may highlight the imperative need not to overlook our nearest geographical neighbour in his conference speech; fostering amicable yet competitive relations with the EU is vital for our national prosperity. This should not be misconstrued as an indication of intent to rejoin the EU; it is disingenuous for pro-Brexit supporters to frame any engagement with the EU as a clandestine path back to membership. 

Speculation is mounting regarding how the Prime Minister will address the five pledges he made earlier this year. Will he demonstrate sportsmanship by taking responsibility for any shortcomings in achieving all five goals, or will he attempt to deflect blame elsewhere? This remains uncertain.

In July, GDP is estimated to have declined by 0.5%. The challenges faced in implementing the plan to house immigrants on Bibby Stockholm have been well-documented. While inflation has decreased recently, it is projected to remain the highest among G7 nations. These three critical areas — economic growth, inflation control, and immigration policy — will face scrutiny from the media and numerous Tory backbenchers. Many among them hold the view that Sunak assumed leadership without winning a proper leadership contest, further complicating the political landscape.

The course of action Sunak chooses to take in addressing these challenges and his pledges will be a topic of keen interest and debate.

It is a certainty that we will have a general election within the next 18 months. This could be the last conference before that election, and for that reason, we are likely to see the beginning of a campaigning Sunak. There will unquestionably be the launch of an offensive against Keir Starmer in Sunak's conference speech. This is likely to take a three-pronged approach: critiquing Starmer's track record as the director of public prosecutions, highlighting his perceived lack of legislative ambitions, and undoubtedly exploiting his perceived inclination to rejoin the EU, a move which will certainly rile up the Brexit base.

The path to victory for Sunak in the next election will require a hard-fought battle; his upcoming speech will set the tone for a campaign of political mudslinging from both camps. Starmer and Sunak are often seen in a similar light as somewhat unremarkable and bureaucratic leaders. If Sunak can raise doubts about a potential Labour government in the minds of voters, it could marginally increase the likelihood of a Conservative win. It will be a battle of the least worst option. 

Image: UK Government

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