Rishi Sunak to pitch himself as prime minister to 'fundamentally change the country' as HS2 announcement looms

Rishi Sunak will try to convince the public he is the person to "fundamentally change the country" and fix Westminster's "broken system" - despite the fact his party has been in government for 13 years.

In his speech on the closing day of the Conservative Party conference, the prime minister will present himself as a reformer who is prepared to take difficult decisions - with the fate of HS2 set to be among them.

His remarks will round off what has been a chaotic four days at the party's annual event, overshadowed by the future of the high speed rail line.

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Sky News understands cabinet ministers are meeting now to sign off the long rumoured scrapping of the northern leg to Manchester, which will see high speed services run between London and Birmingham, before switching to the existing West Coast Mainline track.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said the decision meant people in the North were being "treated as second-class citizens by the Whitehall and Westminster machine".

Speaking to Sky News' Kay Burley, he added: "It is a really sad thing that it has come to this. The prime minister will be standing in front of a sign today in the conference hall saying 'long term decisions for a brighter future'.

"Wasn't HS2 once the long-term direction for the country?

"I don't see long-term decisions at this conference. I see short-term desperate decisions from a dying government."

The Tory mayor for the West Midlands, Andy Street, also said it would be "an incredible political gaffe", allowing opponents to accuse Mr Sunak of having decided to "shaft the north".

Sky News understands he has cancelled a trip abroad to stay at the conference for Mr Sunak's speech, and asked if he could quit the party over the decision, Mr Street's spokesperson said: "We intend to listen to the PM's speech and respond accordingly."

Labour's South Yorkshire Mayor, Oliver Coppard, told Sky News on Wednesday it was both "a catastrophe for the North and a catastrophe for the country", accusing the government of "making promises to the North and then casually breaking promises time and time again".

While Mr Sunak has repeatedly sought to dodge questions over HS2 this week, he did say on Tuesday that the costs of the project had gone "far beyond" what had been predicted, and the sums involved were "enormous".

Some estimates have put the total price tag at over £100bn, while the project has been rated "unachievable" by the infrastructure watchdog.

Speaking to Sky News ahead of the prime minister's appearance, former transport secretary Grant Shapps defended the looming decision over the northern leg.

"When COVID hit, a once-in-a-100-year pandemic, travel patterns fundamentally changed," said the now defence secretary.

"You can plough on, you can pretend the world is as it was, or you can take the difficult longer-term decisions to go actually, if there is a change, what could we be using that money for? How can we be improving lives [and] connectivity across the north?"

The answer to that could be around £30bn of spending on road, rail and buses, as Sky News' Sophy Ridge reported last night.

She said the big spending commitment would come as an attempt to sweeten the pill for those in the North and Midlands who feel slighted by the axe being taken to HS2.

But anger over the decision remains, with a source telling Sophy Ridge: "This will mean unreliable and infrequent trains to Manchester - there just isn't capacity for this to work.

"Using the existing track will put extra pressure on the West Coast Mainline."

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As well as the furore around HS2 at this year's annual conference, Mr Sunak has also been undermined by his predecessor Liz Truss, who drew big conference crowds as she demanded immediate tax cuts to "make Britain grow again".

Mr Sunak has instead compared himself to the late Baroness Thatcher, who tackled inflation before cutting taxes during her premiership between 1979 and 1990.

In his speech, the prime minister will rail against "30 years of a political system which incentivises the easy decision, not the right one - 30 years of vested interests standing in the way of change".

He will reflect on his first year in Number 10 and acknowledge a "feeling that Westminster is a broken system".

"It isn't anger, it is an exhaustion with politics," he will say.

"In particular, politicians saying things, and then nothing ever changing.

"And you know what? People are right. Politics doesn't work the way it should."

And he will say: "Politicians spent more time campaigning for change than actually delivering it.

"Our mission is to fundamentally change our country."