Sunak to rail against 30 years of politics and present himself as a reformer

Sunak to rail against 30 years of politics and present himself as a reformer

Rishi Sunak will rail against post-Thatcher politics for focusing on quick fixes and attempt to portray himself as a radical reformer prepared to abandon the northern leg of HS2.

The Prime Minister will use his Conservative conference speech in Manchester on Wednesday to criticise 30 years of incentivising “the easy decision, not the right one”.

With the Tories having been in charge for the majority of the last three decades, he will pitch himself as the man to “fundamentally change our country”.

He is widely expected to bring the axe down on the high-speed rail project that was due to connect the city he is delivering his speech from with Birmingham, and on to central London.

Conservative Party Conference 2023
Former prime minister Liz Truss’s speech drew a large audience (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Labour accused ministers of turning the UK into an “international laughing stock” after Sky News reported the supposedly high-speed line will use existing tracks between Birmingham and Manchester.

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

In a convention centre built from a former railway station, Mr Sunak will reflect on his first year in No 10 and acknowledge a “feeling that Westminster is a broken system”.

“It isn’t anger, it is an exhaustion with politics. In particular, politicians saying things, and then nothing ever changing,” he is expected to say.

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

“We’ve had 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 accuse Labour – recording a consistently double-digit lead over the Conservatives – of failing to “set out their stall” under Sir Keir Starmer and betting on voters’ “apathy”.

And Mr Sunak will argue he is the reformer, saying: “Politicians spent more time campaigning for change than actually delivering it.

“Our mission is to fundamentally change our country.”

Mr Sunak has struggled to keep the conference on track amid Tory criticism over HS2 and his predecessor Liz Truss drawing big conference crowds as she demanded immediate tax cuts to “make Britain grow again” a year after she left office after a chaotic 49 days.

The Prime Minister instead compared himself to Baroness Thatcher, who tackled inflation before cutting taxes during her premiership between 1979 and 1990.

Mr Sunak has repeatedly ducked questions about scaling back HS2 despite northern leaders, businesses and former Tory premiers Boris Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron all warning against the move.

Conservative Party Conference 2023
Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s speech was disrupted (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

But the Prime Minister did on Tuesday say the costs of the project had gone “far beyond” what had been predicted, and the sums involved were “enormous”.

The HS2 scheme was given a budget of £55.7 billion in 2015 but costs have ballooned, with an estimate of up to £98 billion – in 2019 prices – in 2020.

Since then, soaring inflation will have pushed costs even higher.

Reports suggest high speed tracks will reach central London in Euston, rather than terminating in the western suburbs of Old Oak Common after pressure from within the Cabinet.

Mr Sunak would be expected to outline a number of measures to soften the blow to the north, and has hinted at better train and bus connectivity within the region, as well as cash for potholes.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper acknowledged that “some people won’t like” the decision Mr Sunak makes.

Conservative Party Conference 2023
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak holds a meeting with his staff in his hotel room ahead of his keynote speech to the Conservative Party annual conference (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Mr Street used a conference fringe event to issue a last-ditch plea for Mr Sunak to change course.

“I think they are about to make an incredible political gaffe,” he warned.

“Every Labour MP in the North is lining up tomorrow to say … the Tories have come to Manchester to shaft the North.”

The Tory conference also saw an elected Conservative politician thrown out for heckling Suella Braverman over gender issues, which a series of ministers have focused on.

London Assembly Member Andrew Boff was hauled out by security guards after saying “there’s no such thing as gender ideology” from his conference centre seat.

Mr Boff told the PA news agency Ms Braverman had been “basically vilifying gay people and trans people by this attack on LGBT ideology, or gender ideology”.

Ms Braverman later said the heckles were “silly” but said the politician should be “forgiven and let back into conference”.