It’s often said that party conferences are not what they were. But they do put politicians under the harsh glare of the media spotlight, and that still has the power to make or break leaders.
Who can forget the disintegrating platform set and coughing fits that turned Theresa May’s car-crash speech in 2017 into a symbol of her collapsing administration?
Or the humiliation of Neil Kinnock when he tripped in his eagerness to escape the incoming tide during a stroll on Brighton beach in 1983 and fell into the surf?
In contrast, the bravura conference performances of Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher did much to cement their grip on power.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and wife Akshata Murty arriving in Manchester on the eve of the Conservative Party Conference
While his party trails behind Labour in the polls and his ratings have slumped to record lows, the Prime Minister has an unrivalled opportunity to draw a line under the past and cast the minds of the party and the electorate forward.
To do that, he must present a compelling vision of what he stands for – ‘Sunakism’, if you like.
He must convince voters that he understands their concerns and will act decisively to help them. So, on Wednesday, as he delivers almost certainly his last conference speech before the next General Election, what does Sunak need to say to turn things around?
I regularly sit in on focus groups composed of randomly selected groups of voters, and one thing that comes across loud and clear is that they crave security.
Economic security in an era of high inflation and the most severe cost-of-living crisis for half a century. Health security at a time when the NHS appears to be collapsing.
National security in the face of record rates of mass immigration and spiralling crime on our streets.
And cultural security when political correctness and ‘woke’ ideology is taking root in our public institutions, which squander hundreds of millions of pounds on ‘diversity, equality and inclusion’ initiatives.
Sunak must address this demand for security head on and explain why he is the man to provide it.
The most pressing issue is the cost-of-living crisis and a tax burden which is the highest since the Second World War.
Last week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank warned that this shift to a high tax economy could be permanent.
In such a context, voters want to be reassured that the Conservatives remain the party of low taxes and, to convince them that this is so, the PM must plot his roadmap for reducing taxes – starting with the abolition of the hated inheritance tax, perhaps.
When it comes to income tax, Sunak must explain how he will drive economic growth in the years ahead. Certainly, he can point to the easing of inflation as a vindication of his economic policies, even if they have been painful for everyone with a mortgage. There’s no doubt he has started to make the right moves. His recent decision to scrap or delay net zero policies reflects his willingness to take on the Blob.
And he has identified a key dividing line between the sneering metropolitan wokerati and the rest of us: the freedom to drive when and where we like.
Ask voters – particularly in the Red Wall seats who took a punt on Boris Johnson and the Tories in 2019 – about their top priority and they’ll say ‘stop the boats’ (Pictured: Boris Johnson, right, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky)
A key takeaway of Sunak’s speech must be that he is on the side of motorists and will have no truck with congestion charging, low-traffic neighbourhoods and the like. Thanks to the extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) in London and the upcoming enforced switch to expensive electric cars, my polling shows only seven per cent of voters think the Government is on the side of motorists.
On the other hand, I’ve found that Sunak’s recent changes of tack, such as delaying a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars, have gone down extremely well among those voters he so desperately needs to win back.
Many are sick and tired of the escalating costs of green taxes and the growing raft of motoring penalties that lie in wait for the unwary. After the economy and the NHS, immigration is a top priority.
Ask voters – particularly in the Red Wall seats who took a punt on Boris Johnson and the Tories in 2019 – about their top priority and they’ll say ‘stop the boats’.
They are fed up seeing £8 million-a-day of taxes spent housing asylum-seekers. The fact that migrants are still crossing the Channel in large numbers makes a mockery of Brexit Britain’s claim to be a self-governing, independent nation in control of its own borders.
Sunak needs to repeal or reform the European Convention on Human Rights, which has proved to be a seemingly insurmountable legal obstacle to so many border-control initiatives, and he must keep fighting for the Rwanda scheme in the courts.
The PM also needs to start taking the fight to Labour, whose recent threadbare plan for tackling illegal migration was torn apart by experts.
With Labour now also going soft on Brexit, Sunak must make it clear he is the only leader who will defend Brexit from the elites seeking ways to get closer to the EU and squander our Brexit benefits, from trade deals with faster-growing areas of the world to our divergence from stifling Brussels regulations.
What’s more, he needs to get back to the flagship policy which helped his party win their 80-seat majority in the first place: levelling up.
My polling shows that far too few voters have seen any evidence of regional development in action. Indeed, we are now spending more on our broken asylum system than on levelling-up all of northern England. This cannot go on.
The PM needs to spend far more time outside Westminster and announce plans not just to relocate more government departments outside the M25 and accelerate the spread of freeports, but restore the political, economic and cultural power of the forgotten English towns outside London which will ultimately determine whether he stays in power.
He should also make it a priority to combat the general decay of standards and civility in British life and the growing lawlessness, symbolised last week by the murder of another teenager on our streets.
As a result of rising levels of violent crime and an epidemic of shoplifting, most voters see law and order as a big issue. They want police to patrol the streets, not dance with rainbow lanyards on TikTok.
And no analysis of how Sunak can change his electoral fortunes would be complete without addressing his image problem.
For too long he has come across as a strange mixture of slick car salesman and soulless technocrat. But to win an election you need to inspire loyalty and enthusiasm.
He needs to look directly into the eyes of the British people and answer some big questions with authenticity and passion.
Where does he want to take Britain? Why should people trust him? What does he genuinely believe?
He needs, in other words, to find his inner Boris and connect with the British people.
This week provides his best chance to define his vision for a better Britain. If he is to win the forthcoming General Election, he needs to take it.
Matthew Goodwin is professor of politics at the University of Kent and the author of Values, Voice And Virtue, The New British Politics.