Rishi Sunak shrugs off concerns that U-turns might make UK a ‘laughing stock’

Rishi Sunak has rejected criticism that recent U-turns mean the UK cannot be taken seriously, as he fought to maintain order before a Conservative conference set to be dominated by questions about tax cuts and rivals jostling to succeed him.

In the traditional pre-conference TV interview, the prime minister again refused to say whether HS2 would extend as far as Manchester, the host city for the conference, which begins on Sunday afternoon.

Questioned on BBC One’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, Sunak said he was relaxed about taking office without an election and then dropping significant parts of the Tories’ 2019 manifesto, saying he instinctively understood what the public wanted.

“I have a good sense of what the British people’s priorities are,” he said. “I’m going to set about delivering for them. And that’s the change that I’m going to bring.”

Shortly before Sunak spoke, Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, highlighted the extent to which cabinet ministers had been freelancing on policy before the conference, calling for pre-election tax cuts.

Similarly, in newspaper interviews, Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, and Suella Braverman, the home secretary, made their pitches to the Tory right to succeed Sunak after an election, by calling for the UK to leave the European convention on human rights.

In a sometimes combative interview, Sunak sought to present himself as a reinvigorated prime minister with a plan for change, following the recent policy reversal on net zero targets, and the expected U-turn on HS2.

Asked whether the uncertainty about HS2 risked the UK being seen as a “laughing stock”, Sunak replied: “I’d completely reject that. I speak to business leaders all the time. I’ve just been around the world. I’ve recently been in Japan, in America, in Europe. We’re attracting billions of pounds of investment into this country, creating jobs everywhere.

“That’s what I hear from business leaders around the world. They’re excited about the opportunity that investing in Britain offers.”

However, Sunak refused once again to say whether HS2 would run to Manchester, as planned, or stop at Birmingham.

“There are already spades in the ground with HS2, and we’re getting on with delivering it,” he said. When told that was not the question, he added: “I’m not going to comment on all this speculation.”

Kuenssberg played Sunak a clip of Richard Walker, the executive chairman of the retailer Iceland, who said Sunak’s government was “drifting out of touch with the needs of business of the environment, and also the everyday people that my business touches and serves”.

Sunak – who appeared to argue that Walker might in part be disgruntled because he had failed to be selected as a prospective Tory MP – said: “Change may be uncomfortable for people. People may be critical of it, but I believe I’m doing the right thing for the country.”

With the conference likely to be the last Tory gathering before an election, Sunak will face significant pressure to agree to tax cuts, with Gove making the case for this in his interview.

“I would like to see the tax burden reduced before the next election,” Gove told Sky’s Sunday with Trevor Phillips programme. “My own view is, wherever possible, we should cut taxes on work. In other words, we should incentivise people to work harder, we should make sure they are better rewarded for the enterprise, the effort, the endeavour that they put in.”

Related: The Tories meet in Manchester plagued by their delusions, desperation and divisions | Andrew Rawnsley

Asked about this, Sunak said only: “The best tax cut we can give working people is to halve inflation.”

Pressed on his easing of green targets, and his decision to prioritise the needs of drivers over bus users, pedestrians and cyclists, Sunak insisted this had not been “a knee-jerk reaction to to the Uxbridge byelection” in July, where the Tories unexpectedly won by campaigning against London’s expanded clean-air zones.

However, he did hint that moves to restrict councils’ abilities to impose 20mph zones and other road safety measures might end up being fairly limited.

Pressed about how this would work, he said it was about “making sure that the statutory guidance that goes to local councils from government is clear about making sure the councils, which are obviously in charge of what’s happening in their local areas, are doing things with the support and consent of their local community”.