Tory conference: Sunak to declare he's a radical reformer who can change the country

In his speech to the Tory faithful, the Prime Minister will compare himself to Margaret Thatcher

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the Conservative Party's annual conference in Manchester on October 3. Reuters
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In his Conservative conference speech in Manchester on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will try to portray himself as a radical reformer prepared to abandon the northern leg of the high-speel rail project.

Railing against post-Thatcher politics for focusing on quick fixes, Mr Sunak will criticise 30 years of incentivising “the easy decision, not the right one”.

He will pitch himself as the man to “fundamentally change our country”, despite the Conservative Party having been in charge for most of the past three decades.

Mr Sunak is widely expected to axe the high-speed rail project, HS2, that was due to connect Manchester with Birmingham, and on to central London.

The Tory Mayor for the West Midlands, Andy Street, said it would be “an incredible political gaffe” to allow opponents the chance to accuse Mr Sunak of having decided to ignore 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.”

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

And he will say he is the reformer: “Politicians spent more time campaigning for change than actually delivering it.

“Our mission is to fundamentally change our country.”

Highlights of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester - in pictures

Mr Sunak has struggled to keep the conference on track amid Tory criticism over HS2.

And his predecessor Liz Truss drew big conference crowds as she demanded immediate tax cuts to “make Britain grow again”, a year after she left office following a chaotic 49 days.

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

He 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.

But Mr Sunak 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 ($67bn) 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.

It is unclear whether HS2 will reach central London in Euston, or terminate in the western suburbs of Old Oak Common.

Mr Sunak would be expected to outline measures to soften the blow to the north, and has hinted at better train and bus connectivity in the region, and money to fix potholes.

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

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 said.

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

Updated: October 04, 2023, 6:02 AM