Rishi Sunak's Conservative party conference speech laid down an impressive challenge to Keir Starmer – Scotsman comment
Rishi Sunak’s speech to the Conservative conference could hardly be described as Churchillian. However, over about an hour, he managed to convey the message that he is a serious, thoughtful and personable politician who cares about his country’s future.
Admittedly he may benefit from comparisons to his predecessors, Liz Truss, Boris Johnson and Theresa May. Truss’s stilting delivery highlighted the folly of her policies; May’s cough is probably the most memorable moment from her conference speeches; and for all Boris Johnson’s crowd-pleasing skills, his rambling comments about Peppa Pig World to the CBI underlined his unsuitability for the job.
Sunak's speech was delivered in an appealing, down-to-earth style and contained considerable substance. While there was some red-meat rhetoric to appease his party’s right-wingers, it was essentially a liberal Conservative manifesto. He may be a Brexiteer but, unlike many of his colleagues, he is also a One Nation Tory.
The Prime Minister made effective attacks on Labour, pointing out that Keir Starmer had tried, not once but twice, to put Jeremy Corbyn – a man “who didn’t believe in Nato, who would have surrendered our nuclear deterrent and who blames Britain for every problem” – in 10 Downing Street.
His announcement that the government would create the NHS's “first-ever, long-term workforce plan”, which will double the number of students training to be doctors and nurses, and should have consequences for the Scottish Government’s Budget, was also hugely welcome, if overdue. As was his decision to increase the minimum age to buy cigarettes on an annual basis, so that a 14-year-old today will never be able to be sold one legally. This, he said, could cut cancer deaths by a quarter, relieve pressure on the NHS and save the country £17 billion a year.
The well-trailed decision to scrap the Birmingham-Manchester leg of the HS2 high-speed rail line was a blow. However, when it came it was softened by the news that its £36 billion budget would be used to fund a myriad of other transport infrastructure projects, including some in Scotland. Leeds, the largest city in Europe without a mass transit system, is to get a tram network. The city of Edinburgh, burned by its own experience, will no doubt wish them well.
Whether many smaller schemes will make up for the loss of such a large one remains to be seen, but Sunak made reasonable arguments about the need to improve transport connections within northern England, rather than the speed of the journey to London.
We would, however, be remiss not to add some caveats to this paeon of praise. The first is that in a speech talking about the long-term future, he failed to lay out any kind of vision about how the country is going to transition to net-zero. This remains an enormous task and one that is vital to the health of the economy.
Secondly, he is probably not going to be around for long enough to deliver any of it, given the Conservatives’ current position in the polls. And third, his views, particularly on tax cuts, are at odds with his party’s Truss wing, somehow still influential despite her disastrous spell as Prime Minister. A shock Sunak election win could lead to more Tory infighting and a very different government indeed.
However, if Starmer has been entertaining thoughts that he will simply walk into Downing Street, he is mistaken. Sunak, a serious politician for serious times, has laid down a defiant challenge. At Labour’s conference next week, Starmer must now respond in similar fashion or what many see as a foregone conclusion could well become an increasingly close race.
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