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Sunak in promise to change Britain’s ‘broken’ politics as HS2 faces cuts

The Prime Minister will position himself as the leader to ‘fundamentally change our country’ ahead of an election expected next year.

David Hughes
Wednesday 04 October 2023 00:01 BST
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during the Conservative Party annual conference (PA)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during the Conservative Party annual conference (PA) (PA Wire)

Rishi Sunak will rail against post-Thatcher politics and attempt to portray himself as a radical reformer as he faced a backlash for abandoning the northern leg of HS2.

The Prime Minister will use his Conservative conference speech in Manchester on Wednesday to criticise 30 years of a “broken” system incentivising “the easy decision, not the right one”.

With the Tories having been in charge for the majority of the last three decades, he will pitch himself as the man to “fundamentally change our country” ahead of an election expected next year.

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

Instead he is expected to pledge to reinvest around £36 billion of savings into road and rail schemes in the North and Midlands.

But critics, including Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, warned those schemes would not be feasible without key parts of the infrastructure that would have formed HS2.

Sky News reported the supposedly high-speed line will use existing tracks between Birmingham and Manchester.

The Tory mayor for the West Midlands, Andy Street, said it would be “an incredible political gaffe” allowing opponents to accuse Mr Sunak of having decided to “shaft the North” while in Manchester.

And Labour’s Mr Burnham told BBC’s Newsnight: “Sometimes in politics, it’s not just what you do, but it’s the way that you do it.

“So announcing this decision in Manchester, I think just shows contempt for the place.”

He added: “In effect, what they are deciding is that the north of England will have a smaller economy for the rest of this century as a result of this decision.”

Mr Sunak 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 the Prime Minister 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 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.

Reports suggested he will give the go-ahead for the scheme to reach central London in Euston, rather than terminating in the western suburbs of Old Oak Common after pressure from within the Cabinet.

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

In a conference 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.”

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

And Mr Sunak will argue he is the reformer, saying: “Politicians spent more time campaigning for change than actually delivering it.

“Our mission is to fundamentally change our country.”

Mr Sunak has struggled to keep the conference on track amid Tory criticism over HS2 and his predecessor Liz Truss drawing big conference crowds as she demanded immediate tax cuts to “make Britain grow again” a year after she left office after a chaotic 49 days.

The Prime Minister instead compared himself to Margaret Thatcher, who prioritised tackling inflation during her premiership between 1979 and 1990.

The Tory conference also saw Suella Braverman use her conference speech to warn of a “hurricane” of migrants, comments which caused unease among some senior Conservatives.

Mrs Braverman said: “The wind of change that carried my own parents across the globe in the 20th century was a mere gust compared to the hurricane that is coming.

“Because today, the option of moving from a poorer country to a richer one is not just a dream for billions of people. It’s an entirely realistic prospect.”

Mrs Braverman said the future “could bring millions more migrants to these shores, uncontrolled and unmanageable, unless the government they elect next year acts decisively to stop that happening”.

But Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch said: “We have to be very careful about how we explain and express immigration policies, so that people aren’t getting echoes of things that were less palatable.”

Science Secretary Michelle Donelan declined to repeat the language used by Mrs Braverman.

She told BBC’s Newsnight: “My language is different to her language… I think that she’s trying to emphasise how important it is that we tackle something that the British public are deeply concerned about.”

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