Empty Seats And A Row Over Tax As Tory Party Conference Gets Off To A Shaky Start

James Cleverly was greeted
James Cleverly was greeted

James Cleverly was greeted

Cabinet ministers were forced to give speeches in half-empty halls while a major split emerged over tax as the Tory Party conference got off to a shaky start.

Foreign secretary James Cleverly and defence secretary Grant Shapps were confronted with rows of empty seats as the annual get-together kicked off in Manchester.

And Rishi Sunak’s attempts to re-launch his stuttering leadership were dealt a blow as levelling up secretary Michael Gove called for taxes to be cut before the next election.

Interviewed by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg this morning, the prime minister was asked: “Have you really got your party under control?”

The Tories are gathering for what could be the last time before the election with Labour still well ahead in the polls.

Sunak is attempting to re-set his leadership nearly a year after he replaced Liz Truss as PM.

Last week he announced he was watering down many of the government’s green policies and has also pledged to end the “war on motorists” he claims is being waged by councils around the country.

But his attempt at a fightback is at risk of being thrown off course by his internal party critics.

A “Great British Growth Rally” at the conference tomorrow will see Truss joined by Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg in demanding tax cuts.

They were joined this morning by Gove, who told Sky News he would “like to see the tax burden reduced by the next election”.

“We should make sure that [workers] are better rewarded for the enterprise, effort and endeavour they put in,” he said.

Asked about Gove’s comments on “Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg” on the BBC, Sunak refused to back his colleague.

He said: “We are all Conservatives, of course I want to cut taxes [but] the best tax cut I can deliver right now for the country is to halve inflation.

“It is inflation that is putting the prices of things up, inflation impacting the cost of living, inflation eating into people’s savings, their bank accounts, their wallets.

“And that’s why the first of my priorities is to bring inflation down - to halve it - and I am pleased we are making progress.”

Meanwhile, Tory activists appeared to vote with their feet by snubbing a succession of cabinet ministers.

Both Cleverly and Shapps - two of the cabinet’s big beasts - were left embarrassed as they gave their big speeches in the sparsely-populated main conference hall.

Both used their addresses to launch outspoken attacks on Keir Starmer’s Labour Party.

Cleverly said they were “a group of political chancers and visionless ideologues” who did not deserve to win the next election.

Grant Shapps also spoke to rows of empty seats.
Grant Shapps also spoke to rows of empty seats.

Grant Shapps also spoke to rows of empty seats.

Meanwhile, Shapps said Starmer was “a man focused on the short-term and lacking the backbone to make the big changes that Britain needs”.

The defence secretary added: “In Rishi Sunak, we have a leader who has weathered a brutal baptism of fire and is coming through. His mettle has been tested and not found wanting.

“He has stuck to his course, trusting in what he believes to be right for the country. It doesn’t always make him popular in the short term – but that is the price of doing the right thing.”