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The key issues to arise from the Tory events, from HS2 to ECHR membership

The Conservative Party conference is well under way, with thousands of attendees descending on Manchester for the annual four-day conference.

The conference consists of speeches, receptions and fringe events which give Conservative Party members, the press and the public a chance to learn about the party’s ideas and policies for the forthcoming year.

Discussions have largely been eclipsed by Rishi Sunak’s reticence to confirm whether the northern leg of HS2 will be scrapped, following widespread speculation that this is imminent.

Mr Sunak refused to confirm or deny rumours, however, stating he would not be forced into a “premature decision” regarding its future.

What are the key talking points from this year’s Conservative Party Conference?


HS2 branding is pictured on a construction worker's PPE and clothing as work continues at the Old Oak Common Station construction site for the HS2 high-speed 2 railway project, in north west London on September 29, 2023. HS2, the UK's second high-speed train line after the one leading to the Channel Tunnel, has suffered spiralling costs despite the route being cut short, raising fears the project could be further derailed. Designed to bring the major cities in the north of England closer to London, its cost was estimated at ??37.5 billion ($46 billion) in 2013. (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP) (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)
The Prime Minister is expected to announce his intention to ditch phase 2 of the high-speed line from Birmingham to Manchester (Photo AFP via Getty)

Although the Prime Minister’s closing speech isn’t scheduled to take place until 11.15am on Wednesday 4 October, the issue of HS2 has dominated this year’s conference.

Mr Sunak is expected to overrule the concerns of Tory grandees, regional politicians and the transport industry by announcing a scrapping of the northern leg of the high-speed rail service between Birmingham and Manchester.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast on Tuesday, he said he would not “be forced into a premature decision because it is good for someone’s TV programme”.

He added: “What I want to do is make the right decision for the country. This is an enormous amount of people’s money, taxpayers’ money, everybody watching, billions and billions of pounds.

“We shouldn’t be rushed into things like that. What people would expect from me is to take the time to go over it properly and make sure we make the right long-term decisions for the country.”

The Prime Minister is set to call an emergency Cabinet meeting on Tuesday to discuss the future of HS2.

Leadership contest

Succession is a key topic at this year’s conference, with MPs openly speculating on who might replace the Prime Minister if he loses a general election next year and is forced to step down as Conservative leader.

Kicking off speeches on the main stage at the Tory conference on Sunday, party chair Greg Hands said: “This is likely to be a general election where the Conservatives enter as the underdogs.”

Dame Priti Patel, Kemi Badenoch and James Cleverly are among the possible future Tory leaders who have been active at the party conference.

With current opinion polls indicating that Mr Sunak may face defeat at next year’s general election, the question of who might take his place has been a major watercooler topic at this year’s conference.

European Convention on Human Rights membership

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 03: Home Secretary Suella Braverman speaks on the third day of the Conservative Conference on October 03, 2023 in Manchester, England. Home Secretary Suella Braverman will deliver her keynote speech to delegates at The Conservative Party Conference, at Manchester Central, and talks about reducing migration to the UK. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Suella Braverman speaks on the third day of the Conservative Party conference in 2023 (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty)

A talking point that highlights the division within the party, ECHR membership continues to split the party down the middle.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove hinted that he would be open to leaving the ECHR amid speculation the Prime Minister could be considering the move.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman has repeatedly stated that she would like to depart from the ECHR, as has Kemi Badenoch. The move is supported by many right-wing Tory MPs who argue that scrapping it will make it easier to stop illegal migrants arriving in small boats.

Asked at an Onward event at the conference whether he would support scrapping the ECHR, Mr Gove said the UK must “keep every option open”.

However, the security minister, Tom Tugendhat, and the International Development Minister, Andrew Mitchell, hit back at calls to leave the ECHR, with Mr Tugendhat citing a lack of solutions from those who wished to leave about how to “address the gaps that they create”, for example with Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement, which is dependent on the ECHR.

Speaking to Times Radio, he said: “I’m just suggesting these are really big questions and don’t throw around words unless you can answer the questions. And so what we need to do is make sure if you’re looking at the future in a different way, that’s fine. Set out the questions. Set out the answers.”

Criminal justice system

The Government is considering renting prison cells overseas to tackle prison overcrowding, the Justice Secretary has announced.

Speaking from the main stage of the Tory party conference on Tuesday, Alex Chalk said: “I can tell you today that we also intend to look at the Norwegian example and explore renting overseas capacity.”

He added that the Government is “rolling out the largest prison expansion programme since the Victorian era. Thanks to this Prime Minister […] we have brought online over 5,000 more places.”

Trans women

EMBARGOED TO 0001 WEDNESDAY AUGUST 30 File photo dated 18/01/23 of a general view of staff on a NHS hospital ward, as Age Scotland has said a survey showing almost a third of over-50s questioned had paid or would be willing to pay for medical procedures due to difficulties accessing NHS treatment is evidence of an emerging two-tier system of healthcare in Scotland. PA Photo. Issue date: Wednesday August 30, 2023. See PA story SCOTLAND Healthcare. Photo credit should read: Jeff Moore/PA Wire
Staff on a NHS hospital ward (Photo: Jeff Moore/PA Wire)

Health Secretary Steve Barclay has announced plans to prevent trans women from using female-only hospital wards.

Speaking on Tuesday morning, he said: “To deliver the long-term change the NHS needs we need a relentless focus on patient outcomes, and that means prioritising frontline resources.

“It does not mean spending huge sums of taxpayers’ money on diversity consultants or hiring bloated internal diversity and inclusion teams, and it does not mean ignoring patients’ voices – especially women’s voices – when it comes to the importance of biological sex in healthcare.”

He added: “We know what a woman is, and the vast majority of NHS staff and patients do too.”

He announced that the Government is to change the NHS constitution to “make sure we respect the privacy, dignity and safety of all patients, recognise the importance of different biological needs and protect the rights of women.

“If all of that seems like simple common sense, that’s because it is, and yet every step of the way we have faced opposition from the usual suspects.”

In response to Mr Barclay’s comments, LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall made the following statement: “Whether it’s underfunding on female-specific health issues or simply not having their symptoms taken seriously, women regularly report dissatisfaction with the healthcare they receive in England.

“This is a cynical attempt by the Secretary of State to ‘look busy’ instead of getting on with the graft of implementing the Women’s Health Strategy, and, besides being unworkable, all it will achieve is to restrict access to healthcare for trans women, by making it humiliating and dangerous.”

When does the Conservative Party conference end?

This year, the Tory party conference began on Sunday 1 October and will wrap up on Wednesday 4 October.

The fourth and final day will see speeches from Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt and Johnny Mercer.

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