MANCHESTER: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is set to fire the starting gun Wednesday on Britain’s next general election campaign, with a much-anticipated keynote speech closing his ruling Conservatives’ annual conference.

The UK leader faces a daunting challenge rallying his beleaguered Tories to win the election — due some time in 2024 — after several years of damaging scandals and deep economic woes.

The party, in power since 2010, has lagged behind the main Labour opposition in polls throughout Sunak’s tenure.

But signs that gap could be narrowing have provided a glimmer of hope as the grassroots gathered in Manchester, northwest England, since Sunday.

Sunak, 43, is slated to speak at 11:45 am (1045 GMT) and is expected to continue a recent shift into campaign mode, following a flurry of more populist policy announcements and pivots aimed at drawing dividing lines with Labour.

Ahead of the speech Defence Minister Grant Shapps all but confirmed that the prime minister would announce the scrapping of the northern leg of the HS2 train line, a highly contentious move that has overshadowed the four-day yearly event.

“We have to wait for his actual speech to hear exact confirmation,” Shapps, a former transport minister, told BBC television.

“The balance that has to be made… is whether it makes sense to carry on building that given that the world has changed,” he added.

Sunak, who has been premier for nearly a year, will likely characterise the decision as fiscally prudent due to spiralling costs, as he tries to portray himself as a leader willing to take tough and sometimes unpopular decisions.

“I do things properly and carefully, responsibly and sensibly… but I’m also willing to do things that are bold, that are different,” Sunak told ITV News on Tuesday.

The UK leader cited his recent softening of the pace of Britain’s net-zero agenda and his plans for new “pro-motorist” policies as examples.

“I have a different approach to politics. I think people have tired of politicians who are… focused on the easy way out, short-term decisions,” he told Sky News in another pre-speech interview.

‘Barely coherent’

Sunak faces an uphill task convincing voters to stick with the Tories after 13 years and damaging periods of turmoil under his immediate predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson.

The worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, driven by decades-high inflation and non-existent economic growth, as well as widespread industrial action, adds to the gargantuan challenge.

Three imminent by-elections — the first on Thursday in a Scottish constituency — could lay bare the scale of the task ahead, with the Conservatives at risk of losing in each despite winning two of them in 2019.

Labour, which starts its annual conference in Liverpool this weekend, has in contrast enjoyed poll leads of more than 20 points this year.

Although several recent surveys show the gap shrinking, the party appears confident of a first return to government since Gordon Brown was prime minister in 2010.

New Savanta polling published Wednesday found around a third of 2019 Conservative voters viewed Rishi Sunak as “incompetent”, rising to nearly six in 10 when counting all respondents.

“Although the general rule of British general elections is ‘always bet on the Conservatives’, the reality is that they’ve run out of room,” Richard Carr, an associate professor in public policy and strategy at Anglia Ruskin University, told AFP.

“Their agenda of talking about long-term decisions whilst engaging in easy choices that seem purely designed to appease the party base is barely coherent,” added Carr, who edited a volume on the modern Conservative party.

“Faced by a Labour opposition which has got its act together, the most likely outcome is a significant election defeat.”

However, some party members in Manchester seemed more upbeat.

“I trust Rishi — he’s in at a difficult time,” said lifelong Conservative Yvonne Peacock, 71, branding him details-oriented and “not a soundbite person”.

Ian Proud, a retired former Tory councillor in London, predicted “there’s at least 12 months until the next election”.

“A lot can happen,” he cautioned.

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