Rishi Sunak speech: Prime Minister saves all the announcements for himself in final attempt at relaunch

Previous speeches at Tory conference had seen ministers discuss measures already announced.

Rishi Sunak has delivered a policy heavy speech that attempted to reassert his authority over the party, while betraying just how worried the Conservative Government are about winning the next general election.

Introduced by his wife Akshata Murthy, the Prime Minister sought to portray his values, what sort of Britain he wanted to live in, and convey a more personal story, all of which were required on a day that saw Labour extend their polling lead.

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Across the first few days of Conservative party conference, ministers gave speeches recycling policies already announced, or focused more on attacking Labour than discussing measures to change the country.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak greets delegates following his speech during the final day of the Conservative party conference. Picture: Carl Court/Getty ImagesPrime Minister Rishi Sunak greets delegates following his speech during the final day of the Conservative party conference. Picture: Carl Court/Getty Images
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak greets delegates following his speech during the final day of the Conservative party conference. Picture: Carl Court/Getty Images

Health secretary Steve Barclay had announced three new policies, two of which were old, with the Chancellor doing the same. So light was Jeremy Hunt’s speech, no guidance or statistics were given to journalists, breaking a conventional norm. Even home secretary Suella Braverman failed to announce anything substantial, aside from plans to ban sex offenders from changing their names.

Giving his keynote speech on Wednesday morning, the Prime Minister had clearly held onto the red meat Tory supporters crave, speaking across a range of briefs. Most notable was the cancellation of HS2 to Manchester, something his own transport secretary had failed to address or answer questions on throughout the conference.

The Prime Minister told his party’s conference HS2 project’s costs had “more than doubled”, so he would be investing every single penny of the £36 billion set aside on hundreds of new transport projects in the North and the Midlands, including the A75 that links Stranraer and its ferry ports at Cairnryan with the A74(M) at Gretna.

In an attempt to quash the growing fury among some of his MPs and the Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street, Mr Sunak insisted anyone who opposed the changes was opposing the projects the investment would be spent on instead.

Several MPs told The Scotsman they were “delighted with the decision”. Another argued it was “about time, and shows the Government can do so much more than just one train”.

However, details of the announcement revealed after suggests all is not as it seems. Numerous aspects Mr Sunak had promised to improve had already been announced, with targets missed by the Government.

Extending Northern Powerhouse Rail to Hull was first announced in 2013, while the Don Valley Line was announced in 2020, then a consultation saw it not move ahead. It was the same for roads, with upgrades to the A1, A2, A5, M6 and A75 delayed by Mr Sunak just six months ago for up to five years. In addition, a staggering £8.3 billion will go on potholes.

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Where the move could benefit Mr Sunak is when developments go to the Commons, with Labour MPs facing voting for £36bn of an alternative to HS2, or being accused of opposing increased connectivity in the North. There is also a degree of reservation, given the Conservatives have promised Northern Powerhouse Rail 60 times and in three consecutive manifestos.

Mr Sunak also made a significant health announcement. The legal age for buying tobacco should rise every year, meaning a 14-year-old will never legally be sold a cigarette.

While the matter is devolved, it represents the Prime Minister moving away from his libertarian instincts. It was a policy position that met with warm applause in the conference hall. With smoking causing one in four cancer deaths, this was a clear measure to fit the promise of “long-term decisions for a brighter future”.

One MP, who is a smoker, said they were “very happy” with the measures, though the scale of the challenge in convincing the wider Tory party became apparent as Wednesday went on. With MPs promised a free vote, former prime minister Liz Truss was quick to confirm she would vote against the measures, which could in turn rally her supporters.

However, the policy is likely to go ahead regardless, with Labour previously stressing their dedication to a “smoke free Britain”. In the wake of Mr Sunak’s speech, Sir Keir Starmer’s party vowed not to play politics with public health, and lend their votes to see the policy pass.

Government sources had told The Scotsman the Prime Minister’s speech would be an attempt not only to show Mr Sunak’s guiding principles, but an attempt to reassert his authority on the party amid leadership pitches from Ms Braverman and Kemi Badenoch.

Nowhere was this clearer than Mr Sunak’s comments on stopping the boats. The Prime Minister offered his strongest hint yet that Britain could leave the European Court of Human Rights, telling conference he would do “whatever it takes”.

In the face of attacks from the party right that Mr Sunak has been “governing like a Remainer”, this was an attempt to not just win over the more right-wing membership, but also calm down the MPs who might have been assessing their options.

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As one MP put it on leaving the hall: “He was brilliant, I think we’re back.” Another added: “No word of a lie, it was the best prime minister’s speech I’ve ever heard at conference.”

Two more told The Scotsman they were “very happy”, but it did not go unnoticed there was no mention of housing – one of the biggest issues facing young people.

One unhappy Conservative source, who does support the Prime Minister, said: “I’m disappointed because I think in a way it feels like a slap in the face to those under 30, as we target an audience to win now rather than the voters of the future. That’s not very long-term plan.”

Another took issue with the Prime Minister’s statement that "a man is a man, and a woman is a woman, that's just common sense”. It was a comment that came with no policy, but instead appeared an announcement to appeal to the base, much like Ms Truss did during every hustings in the leadership contest. They said: “At some point we have to accept that young people vote, and trans people don’t have to be a punching bag.”

Mr Sunak needed to deliver a speech to placate the Tory right, and give the public an idea of what he believed in, and the key ways he wanted to change Britain. His speech has accomplished that, but it was telling how few MPs still appear to believe he can win the next general election.



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