RISHI Sunak has realised the Conservative Party is “in a hole” and has launched a last-ditch attempt to secure a legacy, according to a leading political scientist.

Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University delivered his verdict on the Tory party conference after the event wrapped up in Manchester on Wednesday.

Speaking to The National, Curtice said the Tories were “anguishing” over what he described as their two major dividing lines: taxation and immigration.

The top pollster said the party appeared divided, with Home Secretary Suella Braverman delivering a hardline speech on immigration in which she warned of a “hurricane” of migrants coming to Britain.

Her language appeared to make some of her Cabinet colleagues uncomfortable. Grant Shapps later denyed it echoed the language of late Tory MP Enoch Powell, who had warned of “rivers of blood” over non-white immigration to the UK in the late 60s.

The National: Liz Truss

And, the Prime Minister was dealt a blow when his predecessor Liz Truss (above) addressed a packed and well-publicised “growth rally” where she criticised her party for its record on taxation and spending.

A house divided

Curtice said: “It was a conference in which the party was anguishing over its two challenges.

"Concern number one is there are many in the party who are concerned that it is, as the Institute of Fiscal Studies confirmed earlier this week, presiding over record levels of taxation and spending and they’re going, ‘How did we get there? Can we reverse it?’

“But equally, there are those who find the Suella Braverman approach to immigration and so-called culture war issues, equally, ‘How did we get here?’

READ MORE: Prime Minister officially scraps Manchester leg of HS2 at Tory conference

“There are two obvious dividing lines within the party. One is about its economic stance and one is about its cultural stance.”

Clear blue water

The politics professor said Sunak’s announcement that he was scrapping HS2 should be seen as the PM trying to draw a clear dividing line between him and other Tory prime ministers.

Sunak's speech on Wednesday included him saying it was “time for change”, in a rebuke aimed at his Tory predecessors David Cameron and Theresa May as well as ex-chancellor George Osborne (below).

The National: George Osborne

Curtice added: “Obviously the thing now is what Sunak has said today and what effect, if any, that will have.

“HS2 has long been a controversial subject but of course, it’s exposing divisions, I see Cameron’s now weighed in.

“We know that May and Osborne don’t think it’s a terribly good idea, so it’s certainly opened up divisions.

“What I think Sunak is trying to do, he’s basically worked out that his party is in a hole, that he needs to try and distance himself from his predecessors – and this partly helps.

"And also that he’s also quite rightly worked out that the public are pretty pessimistic and pretty pissed off.”

READ MORE: Tories deny 'echoes of Enoch Powell' in Braverman's 'hurricane of migrants' speech

The public are unlikely to have their opinions change much by the conference, said Curtice, who also argued that Labour’s lead over the Conservatives was more down to Tory “mistakes” than enthusiasm for Keir Starmer’s (below) party.  

The National: Keir Starmer

“I suspect he’s hoping that – and there does seem to be evidence out for [this] – that Labour’s lead is primarily founded on Conservative mistakes rather than enthusiasm for Labour,” said Curtice.

“By suggesting that he’s going to be willing to do things differently, he presents a challenge to Labour to say: ‘How would you make things better, how would you do things differently?’

“And of course, we’re still looking at a Labour opposition which has tended still to be relatively reluctant to say what its policies are.

“Do I expect a massive increase in the Tory standing in the polls? No.

"Now that we’re 10 days on we know that the net zero announcement hasn’t made any difference at all. These things are not easy to tell.

"But one speech doesn’t make a summer one, most party conferences don’t make a difference.

“Sunak needs to show that he’s on the front foot rather more than he has been in the last 12 months, that he’s willing to lead etcetera, etcetera. That’s evidently the broad, stylistic change that he’s now decided to make and we’ll have to see where it goes.”

Where does it go from here?

Curtice also critiqued what he saw as a lack of an overall guiding principle in Sunak’s speech.

He said: “What is it that connects promoting technical education with banning cigarette smoking, with changing a transport strategy? How do you join the dots, how do you present them as a broad, synoptic vision?

"The bit of the speech towards the end was about how lots and lots more things will be better, but there wasn’t a handy catchphrase.

“I doubt if it’s going on its own to turn things around. Where do things go from here?”