Rishi Sunak scraps northern HS2 rail to free up funds for ‘hundreds of new projects’

Prime Minister promises every aspect of government will be shaken up by new thinking

Watch: Rishi Sunak pledges to scrap HS2 rail to pay for new projects

Watch: Rishi Sunak pledges to scrap HS2 rail to pay for new projects
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Rishi Sunak has pitched himself as a force for change in a bid to win the next general election by choosing to cancel not only a major rail project, but the smoking of cigarettes and A-level exams.

In an hour-long speech before the Conservative Party conference the British Prime Minister made the much-anticipated announcement to axe the HS2 rail project.

But he also went in hard on the smoking industry, introducing legislation to raise the ban on smoking by a year annually, meaning that today’s 14 year olds will never be legally able to smoke.

He also made several references to his Indian ethnicity, arguing Britain was the “most successful multi-ethnic country on Earth”.

Wearing a blue bracelet that read ‘Dada’, the father of two, 43, took to the podium to push a string of his policies and defend his less-popular choices.

It was a speech that typified Mr Sunak’s competent, honest and capable approach to politics yet it remains to be seen if it will take the fight to Labour and inspire voters to return to Conservatives, enabling them to win next year’s election.

But with the Conservatives more than 15 points behind in the polls, Mr Sunak knows he has to create wedge issues to make an impact on the public consciousness that he is a different type of leader.

Akshata introduction

In a break from tradition, Mr Sunak was introduced by his wife Akshata Murty, 43, who began her unscripted and endearing speech by stating my “husband has no idea what I’m going to say”, to much laughter.

She lauded his “strength of character” and told the packed hall aspiration runs through her husband’s veins.

“We met when we were 24 and I was struck by two things: a deep love for his home, the UK, and his sincere desire to ensure as many people to have chances that he had.”

Part of that “chance” was the private education Mr Sunak received at Winchester College and he made a big pitch to improve Britain’s state education system.

He proposed introducing baccalaureate-style testing by ensuring that all pupils studied both maths and English to 18 in addition to three other A Levels in the new Advanced British Standard.

“Education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet,” he declared after announcing that those who taught key subjects would receive special bonuses of £30,000 tax free over their first five years of their career.

HS2 axed

Watched by his entire cabinet, some of whom have made oblique leadership pitches during the four-day conference, the Conservative leader navigated through the tricky ground of cancelling a high-level transport project by making it sound like a win.

The HS2 rail line was meant to reduce journey times between Birmingham and Manchester by 45 minutes but with costs spiralling and the project not ready after two decades, Mr Sunak decided to take the criticism while saving £36 billion.

That cash will be spent on rail and road projects across the country that he proposed would have a much greater impact. Every region outside of London will receive the same amount of investment or more than they would have under HS2, Mr Sunak said.

But the danger remains that key Conservative supporters, including the West Midlands mayor Andy Street could heavily criticise the decision.

Mr Sunak’s is staking his position as the person who deals with realistic politics rather than unfulfilled bombastic promises.

He accepted the decision would draw criticism such as showing “a lack of ambition”.

“I say to those who backed the project in the first place, the facts have changed and the right thing to do when the facts change is to have the courage to change direction,” he said.

“So I am ending this long-running saga. I am cancelling the rest of the HS2 project and in its place, we will reinvest every single penny, £36 billion, in hundreds of new transport projects in the North and the Midlands, across the country.

“This means £36 billion of investment in the projects that will make a real difference across our nation.”

Ethnic Britain

The biggest sign of warmth from the packed hall at the Manchester Convention Centre came when he praised Britain’s multiculturalism.

“I stand before you today as the first non-white leader in Britain’s history,” he said, then related a story of taking his grandfather into Westminster Palace when he first became an MP in 2015.

Britain is not a “racist country”, the Prime Minister said, as he highlighted the diversity within the ruling Conservative Party.

“I’m proud to be the first British-Asian prime minister but even prouder that it’s not a big deal,” he added.

Stop the boats

“We will do what is necessary stop the boats,” Mr Sunak stated, hinting that he may be prepared to take Britain out of the European Convention on Human Rights if the Rwanda deportation scheme failed in the courts.

“I am confident that once flights start going regularly to Rwanda, the boats will stop coming,” he argued.

He said he wanted to deliver tax cuts but these would have to be found by instead halving inflation and easing the cost of living.

Smoking ban

Ending smoking would “tackle the single biggest preventable cause of death” in Britain, where 64,000 people die from smoke-related diseases a year.

“Thousands of children will start smoking in the coming years,” he warned, stating that raising the legal smoking age by one year, every year" means a 14 year old today will never be legally sold a cigarette.

This was met with lukewarm applause – the Conservatives are never keen on governments banning items, which their leader appeared to acknowledge.

“For a Conservative, measures that restrict choice are never easy,” he said. “But there is no safe level of smoking. None of us want our children to grow up as smokers.”

'Realistic approach to net zero'

Mr Sunak sought to defend his recent decision to push back green targets, including a 2030 ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol cars.

He said while it “was not the easiest argument to have”, Britain’s poorest households should not have to pay for measures aimed at reaching the net-zero 2050 target.

“I won’t take any lectures from countries that have done far less than us or from those for whom spending thousands of pounds means nothing,” he said.

The UK remains on track to meet domestic and international climate targets and its net-zero commitment, he said.

He chose to “take a pragmatic proportionate and realistic approach to reaching net zero”, he said.

By scaling back the green agenda, his administration has “solved a problem and offered an unapologetic defence of good Conservative common sense”, he said.

'Time for change'

Throughout the long speech, the applause was moderate without being ecstatic, a suggestion that the Conservative Party knows it is in a hard place that could only become harsher if the disunity of Boris Johnson’s era is reintroduced.

The polls in coming months – as well as the economic data – will be key in determining whether Mr Sunak has achieved the “cut-through” needed to close the gap on Labour.

Mr Sunak ended by emphasising “it is time for change and we are it”. In the press room afterwards, one commentator summed up the challenge he faced: “What he really means is ‘it’s time to change, stick with the Tories’," he said.

Updated: October 04, 2023, 2:11 PM