UK Conservative Party Conference: Even a trade deal with Saudi can't save Rishi

7 min read
05 October, 2023

Manchester, England - With a characteristic grey canopy hanging over Manchester during the Conservative Party conference this week, the mood inside the halls was similarly sombre, with members resigned to the fact that their 13-year reign will soon come to an end.

The conference is likely a swan song for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government, who are at 4/1 to win the next election, huge odds for the two-horse race that is UK politics.

Taking over the party in 2022 amid a huge backlash over rising energy prices, a sluggish economy, and massive inflation, the outlook for Sunak was already bleak and he was tasked with the almost impossible job of leading the Conservatives to success in the next election.

With the Conservatives trailing Labour by around 20 percentage points this will be more a question of damage limitation than anything else. Due to this reality, the UK media has largely interpreted conference speeches by government ministers - notably Home Secretary Suella Braverman, Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch, and Penny Mordaunt - as leadership pitches to take over the party when Sunak eventually resigns.

The prime minister made one last throw of the dice at the conference with a pledge to make the Conservatives the party of "change" - despite governing the country for a generation - and taking tough long-term decisions that will decide their legacy, including the controversial axing of the final leg of HS2, which intended to link this city - Manchester, the capital of the North - with London via high-speed rail link.

The prime minister's pledges for a staggered ban on smoking and scrapping A-levels are unlikely to be viewed by either the left or right of the party as deserving the moniker "change".

"The conference is likely a swan song for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government, who are at 4/1 to win the next election, huge odds for the two-horse race that is UK politics"

Post-Brexit world

The rest of the conference halls and fringe meetings saw no major foreign policy announcements, although there were signs of how the UK might position itself over the next 12 months, and beyond, in a post-Brexit world.

Support for Ukraine will continue with the next (Labour) government, as will the existential exercise of figuring out a global identity in an increasingly polarised world, with negotiations on trade deals with India, and the Gulf (and hopes to start talks with the US) likely to drag on for years.

UK Foreign Minister James Cleverley’s conference talk was dominated, unsurprisingly, by Ukraine, but he also flagged the assistance the UK has provided Morocco, Turkey, and Syrians following the devastating earthquakes there this year.

Apart from minor lip service to a two-state solution for the Palestine-Israel crisis by Cleverly and other MPs, there was no roadmap or strategy outlined for bringing peace to the Middle East at the conference, bar the odd mention of the Abraham Accords.

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This is unsurprising given that Israel is now governed by the most right-wing government in its history, with extremist ministers, such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who not only oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state but even deny the existence of a Palestinian people.

Cleverly waxed lyrical about the "global outlook" of his government, contrasting with Labour which "can hardly imagine a world beyond Brussels", despite the opposition party saying it would not return to the European single market if it wins the next election.

Ultimately this means that a Labour government will likely continue the work done by the Conservatives on current trade deals.

Kemi Badenoch spoke about the slow progress in negotiating a trade deal with India and admitted there was "zero chance" of striking one with the US under the current Biden administration.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman speaks on the third day of the Conservative Conference on 3 October 2023 in Manchester, England. [Getty]

Gulf relations

Lord Johnson of Lainston, Minister of State in the Department for Business and Trade, said that the UK and GCC were at hurdle 5 of 12 stages in establishing a free trade deal, but admitted the hard part in the negotiations is still ahead.

Saudi Ambassador to the UK Prince Khalid bin Bandar Al-Saud welcomed the prospect of increased trade but said that such a deal would also have to work for the kingdom, as it looks to position itself as a global economic power. 

The talk also revealed that a planned visit by Mohammed bin Salman to London will not take place in autumn, as touted,  due to the "busy schedules" of the UK prime minister and Saudi crown prince, but will take place "when the stars align".

The UAE ambassador, Mansoor Abulhoul, also spoke of the financial and investment opportunities at Dubai's DIFC banking free zone. Both envoys stressed that the Gulf is now a place of inward investment rather than outflows of cash and a place to nurture human capital and businesses.

Talk of a "symbiotic" relationship between the Gulf and the UK focused mostly on British universities and knowledge, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia both looking to incorporate AI and other tech breakthroughs into urban planning and business, such as with the futuristic NEOM megacity.

Collaboration with Cambridge and Oxford universities, among the leaders in this arena, would offer the best opportunities for collaboration between the UK and Gulf, they said.

"In the main conference hall, fighting political correctness, keeping irregular migrants out of the country, and controlling borders dominated the speeches"

Migration and Brexit

The two ambassadors boasted about the dynamism and forward-thinking nature of the Gulf, while talk of Global Britain and cultural exchange was consigned mostly to the fringes of the conference.

In the main conference hall, fighting political correctness, keeping irregular migrants out of the country, and controlling borders dominated the speeches.

The issue of migration, and particularly small boat crossings, has been a cause celebre for the right wing of the Conservative Party and ideologically affiliated media outlets such as GB News.

Former MEP Nigel Farage, now a full-time pundit who was at the conference, began a one-man crusade to highlight the issue in 2021 when the issue of small boat crossings via the Channel was off the radar for most of the British public.

Despite the relatively small numbers of migrants reaching UK shores, the issue has been adopted wholeheartedly by the Conservative Party.

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One of Sunak’s five pledges after becoming UK leader in 2022 was to "Stop Small Boats", referring to irregular migration to the UK by people smugglers.

The Conservative government has been criticised by rights groups for its hardline approach to tackling immigration, including an attempt to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda while their applications are processed.

"Our new law will ensure that if you come here illegally, you'll be detained and swiftly removed. I am confident that once flights start going regularly to Rwanda, the boats will stop coming," Sunak told the conference.

This talk was eclipsed by a fiery sermon by Suella Braverman warning about the supposed dangers of a "hurricane" of immigration, probably the most talked-about speech of the week.

Nigel Farage, former leader of the Brexit Party and the anti-immigration party UKIP, arrives at the annual Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, northern England, on 2 October 2023. [Getty]

Braverman pledged to the packed auditorium that as home secretary she would immediately start closing "asylum hotels" - where refugees are housed until their applications are processed - and boasted that under her watch, boat crossings were 20 percent down.

The audience was transfixed by her vitriolic delivery, the feeling in the hall frightening and enthralling as she painted a fantasy vision of life under a (centrist) Labour Party, whilst attacking accepted norms such as 'Multicultural Britain'.

"There’s more to do to ensure that Foreign National Offenders aren’t clogging up our prisons for less serious crimes. But are booted out of Britain as soon as soon as possible," she said.

"There’s much more to do to end the scandal of rapists and paedophiles changing their names to evade sanctions and criminal record checks."

"Whoever offers the most bleak prognosis for the future of Britain, and shouts it the loudest, could be the Conservative Party's next winner"

Future of the Conservative Party

This sort of speech will likely appeal to the extreme elements in the Conservatives which now dominate the party membership and played the role of kingmakers in previous leadership votes.

The most likely outcome is that one of the right-wing of the party will win, both offering a similar vision for the country with different ways to deliver this message: Kemi Badenoch with her composed, intelligent, and conversational style or Braverman with her fiery and angry rhetoric.

Both politicians, aged only 43, stand a good chance of governing the Conservative Party in the future and fashioning a new order in British politics, one reflected in the rise of alternative, populist media that has wielded more influence than some of the bigger names in the industry.

Whoever offers the most bleak prognosis for the future of Britain, and shouts it the loudest, could be the Conservative Party's next winner.

Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin