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Rishi Sunak battles to keep control of Conservative conference as leadership rivals fight for attention

Rishi Sunak is battling to keep control of the Conservative party as potential leadership rivals jostled for position on the opening day of the Tory conference.

The Prime Minister vowed he would use the annual event in Manchester to show his party can “deliver real change” as he seeks to move on from crisis management towards setting out a vision for the future.

But possible future leaders including Dame Priti Patel, Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman and James Cleverly all attracted the spotlight with punchy policy interventions.

MPs are openly speculating on who might replace Mr Sunak if he loses a general election next year and is forced to step down as Conservative leader.

Speaking to activists, the Prime Minister insisted the Tories were not doomed despite polls showing they are on track for a landslide election defeat. He told party members: “The difference with Labour could not be more stark. Unprincipled, flip flopping, no conviction and British people are going to start to see through that.

“They are going see the alternative that we offer. They’re going to see that we are the party that is going to deliver real change because we want to change our country for the better.”

Mr Sunak insisted he was pleased with the public response to his recent decision to delay some environmental targets, saying: “We can’t be dominated in this debate by people on the extremes who just think that you should do this at absolutely any cost for people, ordinary people.” But in a BBC interview, he dodged questions over his stance on HS2 rail, tax cuts and his own personal wealth.

Cabinet ministers and senior backbenchers stoked leadership speculation with their own interventions. Home Secretary Ms Braverman insisted that critics of her immigration plans such as Sir Elton John were an “out-of-touch pampered elite”, while Ms Badenoch, the Business Secretary, became the latest minister to suggest Britain may need to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

Dame Priti, the Home Secretary under Boris Johnson, said it was “disappointing” to see leadership candidates competing but refused to rule out making a bid of her own if Mr Sunak does leave after the election.

She attacked the current leader in an interview with i, saying: “Honestly, I wish Rishi well because this is a difficult, difficult time but if you are moving so far away from some of the fundamentals that got you elected in 2019 people are going to raise questions. This is a delicate point, but it’s not a good public look to also try to say ‘well I wasn’t involved in all the stuff that went before me’.”

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said he would use the Foreign Office to try and curb the problem of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats – a key priority for Tory activists. And Tom Tugendhat, the Security Minister who stood for the leadership last year, set out a sweeping vision of conservatism, saying: “What we should aspire to is making sure that we have a conservative policy, a conservative country. Not just because we want to win elections, but because we want the country to be shaped in ways that we know matters.”

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