Rishi Sunak shakes hands with delegates after his speech at the annual Conservative Party Conference
Rishi Sunak shakes hands with delegates after his speech at the annual Conservative Party Conference AFP News

Rishi Sunak earned a much-needed standing ovation from Conservative die-hards gathered in Manchester, as he used his first party conference as their leader to pitch his vision for Britain's long-term future.

With next year's expected general election high on attendees' minds, Sunak was intent on delivering the message that he represents change -- despite more than a decade of Tory governments.

And the message seemed to land well with members who last summer picked his short-lived predecessor Liz Truss over him to be leader, only for her premiership to implode weeks later.

"I came here from last year as a Truss-ite, I probably up 'til yesterday... would've voted for Truss again, but he did well," said Conor Boyle, 20, a student Tory from Northern Ireland.

"I actually thought it was brilliant," he added of Sunak's hour-long keynote address, describing him as "a bit of a breath of fresh air".

Ahead of the 43-year-old former finance minister's speech, a slick big-screen video montage themed around "change" and how Sunak is "different" left onlookers in little doubt about his imminent message.

His Indian-born wife Akshata Murty then arrived at the podium as a self-proclaimed "surprise addition" to the speakers' line-up, insisting her husband had "no idea what I'm going to say".

Delivering personalised remarks about their 14-year marriage without a teleprompter, she nonetheless stuck to the script that Sunak is a new kind of leader willing to take tough, unpopular decisions.

"Sometimes when the going gets tough, I remind Rishi that he's fighting for his values, that he's fighting for this party's values, knowing that it's a hard road ahead," she said.

Large banners on the hall walls in front of her hammered home the intended message, bearing the conference's slogan: "long-term decisions for a brighter future".

After his hour-long address, which combined major policy announcements with attacks on the Labour opposition -- the overwhelmingly male, suited audience rose for several minutes of applause and cheering.

The party has been wracked by internal divisions in recent years, and saw the start of the annual gathering overshadowed by splits over policy and potential future leaders jockeying for the spotlight.

But emerging from the packed hall, opinion appeared positive.

"I thought it was a brilliant speech. Two years ago I was voting labour, so I'm a convert," Eileen Gallagher, 63, told AFP.

"I think he hit all the right notes and I think it's ambitious and he's right to concentrate on the long-term.

"I think everyone's really buoyed by it."

Jenny Johnson, a Tory councillor in northwest England, echoed the enthusiasm.

"I'm really surprised at some of those announcements, to be honest, but pleasantly so," she said of the plans detailed, which include curtailing a costly high-speed rail line.

"I think his idea that we are ready for change -- we've been in government for 13 years now, that's a long time -- and the fact that he wants to bring about those changes now, it's very positive."

The Conservatives have lagged behind the main Labour opposition by wide margins for all of Sunak's nearly year-long tenure, prompting him in recent weeks to try to make their differences clearer.

"He set out the stark choice the voters face at the next election, some clear dividing lines between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party," MP Mark Jenkinson told AFP as he exited the auditorium.

The lawmaker dismissed critics who say Sunak cannot represent change with his Tories in power since 2010.

"So much has happened over the last few years, that it has changed the fundamental way that government works," he insisted.

"When the facts change, we've got to change our approach."

For Johnson, Sunak's speech had swayed her opinion on the party's fortunes.

"We're going to win the next election. I think the polls are totally wrong," she said.

"People do need to hear this common sense, pragmatic, courageous conservatism, which comes through today, so I'm personally very impressed by what he said."

Delegates hold placards at the annual Conservative Party Conference in Manchester
Delegates hold placards at the annual Conservative Party Conference in Manchester AFP News