UK Tories bid to kickstart resurgence at annual conference
The UK's Conservative Party begins its annual conference Sunday, bidding to kickstart a resurgence before a general election expected next year that it is currently on track to lose.
The four-day gathering in Manchester, northwest England, will be Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's first since he became Tory leader last October, and likely the last before the election.
His party has been in power since 2010 and looks increasingly beleaguered amid widespread economic woes, which first set in under Sunak's much-maligned predecessors Liz Truss and Boris Johnson.
The main Labour opposition, which starts its yearly conference in Liverpool next Sunday, has opened up double-digit poll leads and is increasingly readying for a return to governing.
Sunak -- who must hold an election by January 2025 at the latest -- will try to use the conference to rejuvenate his flagging Tories and set out a broader, seemingly more populist, policy agenda.
"This week offers us a chance to set out our values to the British people, to commit ourselves to the cause and prepare for the election next year," he wrote in a welcome message to attendees.
"The stakes in the general election next year have never been higher," Sunak said, adding voters will have a choice between "two different ways of doing politics" and vowing to govern "in the long-term interests of the country".
- Eyes on fringe -
Party chairman Greg Hands will kick off proceedings with a main stage address at 2 pm (1300 GMT) Sunday.
Recently appointed Defence Secretary Grant Shapps -- just back from a midweek visit to Ukraine -- and Foreign Secretary James Cleverly will also make afternoon speeches.
Monday's headline speakers include finance minister Jeremy Hunt, while Tuesday will see hardline interior minister Suella Braverman deliver a keynote address.
Sunak will close the conference with his speech Wednesday lunchtime.
Meanwhile ministers, Tory big-hitters, activists, commentators and others will feature in various fringe events.
They include ex-prime minister Liz Truss, whose only conference as Conservative leader last year was overshadowed by her disastrous mini-budget unveiled less than two weeks earlier.
It rattled financial markets and its impact continues to be felt across the economy, as well as in polling about trust in the Conservatives' handling of it.
Largely unrepentant, Truss will host a "Great British Growth Rally" Monday, pushing her discredited tax-slashing agenda alongside several other former ministers.
Amid widespread Tory dismay at record post-WWII tax levels, dozens of senior MPs -- including Truss -- revealed late Friday they have signed a pledge not to vote for Hunt's November mini-budget if it contains any rates increases.
Another high-profile party figure, Boris Johnson, is absent from the published conference agenda.
He was forced from Downing Street just over a year ago following myriad scandals, and resigned as a Conservative MP in June before being ousted by lawmakers. They had found he deliberately misled them during the "Partygate" scandal.
- 'Changes' -
Sunak has spent much of his first year in charge trying to stabilise Britain's crisis-hit economic situation, amid the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation and -- until recent months -- decades-high double-digit inflation.
But with his party trailing Labour badly in polls throughout that time, he has shifted strategy in recent weeks in an apparent bid to draw clear dividing lines with its rival.
There has been a flurry of announcements and leaks, on everything from climate change and road policies to infrastructure spending.
On Friday, he unveiled plans to "support drivers" and push back on "anti-car measures" amid a growing number of local authority restrictions on vehicles and where they can be driven in the name of environmental protection.
It follows the controversial softening of green policies aimed at achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 announced last week.
The UK leader is also reportedly poised to cancel a costly new high-speed train line between Birmingham and Manchester, while other shake-ups, to education policy and inheritance tax, have also been rumoured.
"I've had this job for almost a year... I spent the time to get under the bonnet," Sunak told The Sun tabloid in an interview published Saturday, referring to the engine cover on cars.
"Now I am in a position where I want to set out the changes that I want to make... this country different."
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