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Rishi Sunak needs to rally his flagging Conservatives. He hopes a dash of populism will do the trick

LONDON (AP) — U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak heads to the governing Conservative Party’s annual conference on Sunday facing a triple challenge: Cheer up a party that’s trailing in opinion polls, sideline rivals who are eyeing his job and persuade the voting public that a party in power for 13 years deserves another term in office.

Sunak’s arsenal includes a package of populist measures — such as slowing moves to phase out fossil fuels — designed to win back voters who have rejected the Conservatives over Britain’s stagnating economy, cost-of-living crisis and waves of strikes that have intermittently shut down doctors’ offices, schools and train services.

“Public services are crumbling, the economy’s not responding and (the Conservatives) haven’t met some of the pledges they’ve made, so you’d expect them to be pretty downhearted,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

He said that in response, the party is “doubling down on the populism. It’s about pushing the Conservatives as standing up for ordinary people against some sort of elite.”

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In recent weeks, Sunak has approved new North Sea oil and gas drilling, delayed a ban on selling new gas and diesel cars and watered down other green measures that he said imposed “unacceptable costs” on ordinary people. On the eve of the conference, he announced plans to curb supposed “anti-car measures,” such as blanket 20 mph (32 kph) speed limits and traffic restrictions in residential areas.

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Such moves have dismayed environmental campaigners, but are designed to appeal to the party members, officials and lawmakers gathering in the northwest England city of Manchester for a conference that culminates in a leader’s speech by Sunak on Wednesday. The left-of-center opposition Labour Party will hold its own convention in nearby Liverpool a week later.

The autumn conferences — blends of pep rally, policy forum and boozy bash — play an important role in British political life. This year’s may well be the last before a national election. Under the U.K. parliamentary system, an election must be called within five years of the previous one, held in December 2019.

Since the last national vote, the U.K. has left the European Union, endured a pandemic and ejected two prime ministers — scandal-tarnished Boris Johnson and ill-fated Liz Truss, who lasted just 49 days in office. Sunak took the reins in October 2022 with the aim of calming economic turmoil sparked by Truss’ tax-cutting plans.

Bronwen Maddox, director and chief executive of the international affairs think tank Chatham House, said that conferences are a place where a political party “shows off to itself and looks at itself,” while also trying to speak to the wider electorate.

“This is a very stuck, difficult-feeling time in Britain, and has been in a way since Brexit,” Maddox said. “And it’s jarred the country’s image of itself as being well run and good at things like government.

“So people will be looking for reassurance and for hope — and also looking for reasons to scorn. What we’ll watch for … is can (Sunak) really engender a sense of hope in his party and in a much wider audience of potential voters?”

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That could be a struggle. After 13 years of Conservative government, opinion polls put the party 15 to 20 points behind Labour. They suggest support for the party is sagging across almost all demographics, including the “red wall” voters in post-industrial northern English areas. The Conservatives under Johnson won many of those seats from Labour in 2019 by promising that Brexit would bring economic renewal — a renewal that has largely failed to materialize.

Sunak is the fifth Conservative leader since 2016, and rivals have started positioning themselves for a party leadership contest that could follow election defeat. Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch are both bidding for the support of the party’s populist wing, which wants tough curbs on irregular migration and a war on liberal social values derided as “woke.”

Paul Goodman, a former lawmaker who edits the Conservative Home website, said that Sunak’s strategy is to depict Labour leader Keir Starmer, a lawyer who was once the country’s chief prosecutor, as an out-of-touch agent of the status quo.

“He knows that if the next election is framed as Labour versus the Conservatives, Labour will almost certainly win,” Goodman said. “But I think he thinks that if it can be framed as Keir Starmer versus change, then maybe he’ll make it back. So he has to personify himself as change and tell a story of how he is all about change.”

Goodman said election victory for Sunak is “possible, but very unlikely.”

“It is looking a bit better for him than it was when he became prime minister, although the odds are still daunting,” he said.