The irony of Sunak’s long-term vision is the short-term political calculation behind it | Beth Rigby

Politics

He may have been prime minister for a year, but his speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester felt almost like the moment Rishi Sunak introduced himself for the first time.

A speech rich in announcements and packed with messages about Rishi the man and his values.

He and his team knew the speech would be critical to resetting his stuttering leadership.

And you could see that in the overarching theme he returned to throughout – whether it was his description of his childhood, his political priorities or the sort of leader he wants to be, the ultimate message was “take a look at me again”.

That theme is a tacit acknowledgement that after nearly a year in office, working tirelessly hard, there has been very little apparent change in the public’s appetite for the Conservative Party led by him.

This was the first, and perhaps the only chance, that Mr Sunak will get to lay the foundations of his leadership pitch before a general election.

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers his keynote speech at the Conservative Party annual conference at Manchester Central convention complex. the Conservative Party annual conference at the Manchester Central convention complex. Picture date: Wednesday October 4, 2023.

The speech aimed to do three things: First, to define his values and priorities of leadership. Second, to set out priorities that support the assertion that he is willing to take “tough decisions” in the country’s long-term interests. Third, to present himself as the ‘change candidate’ who can take the fight to ‘status quo’ Labour.

By doing this, his close advisers hoped he would present himself as a leader who wants to “do what works” and as a traditional Conservative who wants to “make things better for the next generation”.

He sought to project the values of common sense and social conservatism – drawing parallels between himself and Margaret Thatcher by painting the Conservatives as the party of the “grocer’s daughter and pharmacist’s son”.

At its root was the claim that he is the heir to Thatcher – a leader who will “fundamentally change our country”.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty greet people on stage, at Britain's Conservative Party's annual conference in Manchester, Britain, October 4, 2023. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Image:
Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murthy on stage at the Conservative Party conference

“Where a consensus is false, we will challenge it,” he said. “Where a vested interest is placing itself above the needs of the people, we will stop it. And where common sense is under attack from an organised assault, we will defend it.”

There was a triad of policies to back up this pitch: the curtailing of HS2, an overhaul of further education and a crackdown on smoking.

The PM confirmed he was scrapping the northern leg of HS2, describing the rail project as “the ultimate example of the old consensus” and sticking with a project even when the “facts have changed”. He insisted the £36bn of funds freed up would be reinvested into other transport projects.

On education, the PM promised radical reforms for 16-19-year-olds, with a new “Advance British Standard” that would merge A-levels and the vocational T-levels into one qualification. Students would have to study Maths and English until they are 18 and study five subjects rather than three.

And tacking back to social conservatism, the prime minister also announced the legal age for smoking would be raised by one year, every year so that a 14-year-old would never legally be sold cigarettes.

What all these pledges had in common was their long-term nature.

The smoking ban, which the government is expected to introduce into the King’s Speech later this year, will take at least four years to implement, according to Number 10.

Read more:
Why some Tory MPs are worried their party is being changed from within
All the reaction to the PM’s decision to abandon HS2 plans
When could the next general election take place?

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Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham slams HS2 decision

The education reforms, which the prime minister claimed would be his top spending priority, will be a decade-long project.

And the radical ripping up of HS2 and his new Northern network transport plan is an endeavour that would run into the coming decades.

The irony of all of this is that the politics of much of this long-term agenda is based on short-term calculations.

On HS2, he’s made a huge decision on a multi-decade project, in part because it gives Labour a real headache.

Do they recommit the money and be framed by the Tories as reckless spenders, or do they follow his lead, with all the backlash that would bring?

What this shows is that, in reality, the speech was far less about the actual policies and all about the politics of a leader who wants to present as a change candidate and paint his opponents as the party of the ‘status quo’ – unwilling to go against the prevailing political consensus.

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Minister says HS2 funds can now be better spent

I do not need to tell you how hard it will be for Sunak to pull this off. He is the leader of a party that has been in government for 13 years and is hugely trailing in the polls. But there are two things that explain the approach.

First, with a Conservative Party truly out of favour with the public, this prime minister has to turn any campaign into one centred on himself – a different kind of leader, disassociated from the Conservative brand.

Second, he doesn’t really have a choice. In a country where voters seem desperate for change, he can hardly pitch himself as a continuity candidate or run on a ‘stick with us’ ticket.

It’s an audacious approach, but what does he have to lose? His party is massively behind in the polls and already looking to who comes next.

If we learnt anything today, it was this: if Sunak is going down, he intends to go down fighting.

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