LONDON — Rishi Sunak tried to pitch himself as the change candidate in his first address to the Conservative Party conference as prime minister — and distanced himself from 13 years of Tory government by scrapping a flagship policy backed by his predecessors.
“I will tell it as it is,” Sunak told assembled Conservative activists. “I will lead in a different way, because that is the only way to create the sort of change in our politics and in our country that we all desperately want to see.”
With the Conservatives facing the possibility of electoral oblivion at the hands of a Labour Party with a big polling lead, Sunak is trying to reverse his party’s fortunes by moving away from what he described as “30 years of a political system that incentivizes the easy decision, not the right one.”
For Sunak, this means setting himself apart from the policies of previous prime ministers wearing both Labour and Tory stripes.
In a move seen as part of this ploy, he confirmed Westminster’s worst-kept secret: the rolling back of High Speed Rail 2.
The promised high-speed rail line connecting London to northern cities was announced by former Prime Minister David Cameron in 2013. But key elements of the project have looked increasingly doomed as Sunak and his ministers railed against its ballooning costs in recent weeks. Leaks to media organizations had indicated the next phase of the project was set to be scrapped.
In his speech, he confirmed the cancellation of the “rest of the HS2 project,” meaning the full high-speed line will no longer reach Manchester. In its place, Sunak promised to reinvest the saved funds in a flurry of transport projects in the north and the midlands.
“HS2 is the ultimate example of the old consensus,” he said. “The facts have changed, and the right thing to do when the facts change is to have the courage to change direction.”
That move has attracted criticism from some Tories that represent northern and midland areas. The Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, has refused to rule out resigning from the party.
The scrapping of HS2 goes hand-in-hand with another of Sunak’s controversial policy ploys, the watering down of some of his government’s climate change targets — targets which were largely put in place and accepted by the three Tory prime ministers before him.
He used his speech to reaffirm his “pragmatic, proportionate and realistic approach to reaching net zero” emissions by 2050.
Smoking out the opposition
Sunak was introduced to the stage by his wife, the billionaire Akshata Murty, who made a surprise speech to the Tory faithful.
Rishi Sunak’s wife Akshata Murty praised her husband’s compassion when introducing him on stage | Carl Court/Getty Images
“A bit of a surprise addition [to the conference agenda] shall we say?” Murty said. “And a surprise for my husband too who has no idea what I’m going to say.” She praised her husband’s compassion, “zest for life” and sense of strength in an emotional speech.
“Truly the best long-term decision for a brighter future I’ve ever made!” Sunak joked as he took to the stage and embraced Murty, riffing on his party’s conference slogan.
There was less surprise in much of Sunak’s speech, which was peppered with attacks on Labour’s Keir Starmer, who he accused of “banging on about Europe” and of political opportunism.
Starmer, Sunak said, “is the walking definition of the 30-year political status quo I am here to end,” he said, continuing his theme of trying to present himself, rather than the opposition leader, as the candidate offering change at the general election expected next year.
“You either think this country needs to change, or you don’t,” Sunak said.
“And if you do, you should stand with me and every person in this hall and should stand with the Conservatives,” he added.
Elsewhere, the prime minister announced an effective ban on cigarette smoking for the next generation — aping the policy passed by New Zealand last year.
“We must tackle the single biggest entirely preventable cause of ill health disability and death,” he said. “And that is smoking.”
His plans would mean raising the legal age for smoking every year until no smokers are left, effectively banning anyone younger than 14 from ever legally smoking a cigarette.