Rishi Sunak is struggling to hold together his fractured party as the first day of the Conservative conference saw attempts at a united front collapse into rival groups battling over tax, culture wars and the fight to be the next Tory leader.
In his own carefully planned comments, the prime minister used interviews and a rally in Manchester to portray himself as a figure of change, making difficult but necessary long-term choices above the fray of petty politics.
With the event already at risk of being overshadowed by Sunak’s continued refusal to say whether HS2 will extend to the city, away from the main conference stage a variety of noisy Tory factions jostled to have their say.
In perhaps the most damning comment of the day, Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley mayor and long viewed as a Tory rising star, said he would not bet on his party winning the next election.
“Not at the moment,” he said at a fringe event, adding that Sunak needed to “do more to give people the excuse” to vote Conservative.
Sunak was also coming under increasing pressure to commit to reduce tax before the election, something No 10 wants to do, but approaches with extreme caution given the fiscal repercussions of Liz Truss’s unfunded tax cuts.
After more than 30 largely Truss-sympathetic Conservative MPs signed a highly unusual and borderline rebellious pledge that they will not vote for an autumn statement that raises taxes, Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, called for cuts to personal taxes.
“I would like to see the tax burden reduced before the next election,” Gove told Sky’s Sunday with Trevor Phillips programme, highlighting the extent to which even cabinet ministers are freelancing on policy issues – although he later backtracked slightly, telling GB News that inflation needed to fall first.
As pressure mounts on Sunak to make pre-election tax cuts, the chancellor Jeremy Hunt is to announce plans for tougher benefit restrictions on those who “won’t even look for work”.
The chancellor will pledge new changes to the benefit sanction system in his speech on Monday, as the government attempts to make savings on its welfare bill. He will also announce a move to an £11 an hour living wage.
However the focal point of the tax row is likely to come on Monday when Truss makes her own speech to a fringe event, a year after the disastrous party conference when she was briefly prime minister.
In yet another sign of the extent to which some Tory MPs are becoming emboldened in speaking out, Truss was to call for No 10 to “revive Conservative values” and cut corporation tax to 19%.
She was also expected to demand planning rules be relaxed to boost housebuilding and for fracking to restart, neither of which is government policy.
Labour accused Truss of reviving the same fantasy economics that crashed the economy just 12 months ago”, and called for Sunak to repudiate her ideas.
Interviewed on BBC One’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, the prime minister refused to commit to tax cuts, arguing: “The best tax cut we can give working people is to halve inflation.”
During a sometimes tetchy performance, Sunak argued he was relaxed about taking office without an election and then dropping large parts of the Tories’ 2019 manifesto because he instinctively understood what the public wanted.
“I have a good sense of what the British people’s priorities are,” he said. “I’m going to set about delivering for them. And that’s the change that I’m going to bring.”
The conference has already seen policy challenges from the right of the party, at times mixed with open jockeying for position by ministers trying to position themselves as a successor to Sunak should the Conservatives lose the election.
Before the conference, Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, and Suella Braverman, the home secretary, used newspaper interviews to reiterate their calls for the UK to leave the European convention on human rights (ECHR) – once again something that is not government policy.
The New Conservatives, a culture war-friendly collection of right-leaning backbenchers, released polling on Sunday showing, they said, that a majority of voters and an overwhelming proportion of Tory voters support leaving the ECHR.
On Monday, the group will hold a rally, pressing Sunak to adopt five manifesto pledges, covering ECHR withdrawal as well as tax cuts, massive cuts to immigration, a reduction in the numbers of young people attending university and a ban on “gender ideology in schools”.
In a sign of how US-type culture war issues have become increasingly mainstream within the Conservatives, one of the co-founders of the New Conservatives, Tory backbencher Miriam Cates, used a fringe event on Sunday to argue without any evidence that internet pornography was a driving factor in people becoming transgender.
“This is anecdotal, but you see an awful lot of trans women, so men, saying it was trans porn that led them into the trans arena,” she said. “So I have no doubt that this kind of extreme, violent and very disturbing pornographic material on the internet has got a lot to do with it.”
The mass of MPs and even ministers pushing their own agendas has prompted concern in government about a potential for indisciplined and slapdash messaging going into a general election.
While insisting he did personally not think that ill-discipline was yet a problem in the party, Andrew Mitchell, the international development minister, warned against “people sort of preening themselves on stage, showing off their colourful feathers”.
He said: “As you’re about to go into battle you don’t start arguing the toss with the commanding officer. You get on with preparing to win that battle.
“I don’t think that the Tory party in the country or in parliament would tolerate that sort of self-indulgence at a time we need for our country and our party to win the next election.”