Sunak squirms as he’s forced to deny ‘desperate’ attempt to overshadow Labour conference

PM also given awkward grilling by East Midlands voter on ‘mess’ left by Tories: ‘Why should we vote for you?’

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Monday 09 October 2023 18:05 BST
Sunak grilled by voter in awkward exchange: ' Why should be vote for you?'

Rishi Sunak was forced to deny making a “desperate” attempt to interrupt the Labour conference, as he also faced an awkward grilling by voters in the East Midlands.

The PM was accused of “desperate stuff” by holding a business event in Nottinghamshire – breaking the political tradition that the two parties don’t hijack each other’s annual get-togethers.

Asked by a reporter at the end of the event if he was “desperate” – with the Tories trailing roughly 17 points in the polls – Mr Sunak said: “No.”

The Tory leader even suggested that questioning his motives was “incredibly political” and said it was reasonable to go to the East Midlands to “talk about the plans that we’ve announced”.

Mr Sunak was also given a tough time by a member of the audience at Currys Repair Centre, who sparked laughter by saying “Why should we vote Conservative? … With the mess left by your predecessor [Liz Truss], why should we vote for you?”

The PM laughed awkwardly during the applause for the question, before saying: “I could spend a lot of my time talking about the past, and what I inherited and all the rest of it … that doesn’t help any of you.”

The Tory leader said: “What we need to figure out is what’s the right thing for our country going forward.” Mr Sunak then told them they wanted “change”, adding: “I’m hungry to deliver that change for you.”

A Labour source told Politico that the PM’s Monday event was a “bit below the belt and a bit naff”. Another said it was “desperate stuff and shows they’re rattled by a changed Labour party and our plans to change Britain.” A spokesperson for shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves also hit out at the PM.

Sir Keir Starmer warned at his own business event at the Labour conference that the Tories would “go low” and drag the general election campaign into the gutter – but told corporate chiefs he was ready for a contest in May if that’s what Mr Sunak decides to do.

The PM was accused of ‘desperate stuff’ by holding a business event in Nottinghamshire
The PM was accused of ‘desperate stuff’ by holding a business event in Nottinghamshire (PA)

Meanwhile, Mr Sunak used his business event to defend his hugely controversial decision to scrap HS2’s northern leg – as he was forced to admit on BBC Radio 2 that some promised replacement projects were only “illustrative”.

There has been widespread criticism for his Network North replacement plan – after it emerged that some projects were already underway, some were pulled from a press release, and some were only “examples” of what might be done.

Since the big move to axe high-speed rail, first revealed by The Independent, the prime minister has repeatedly promised that “every penny” of the £36bn removed from HS2 would go to transport alternatives.

Mr Sunak told the East Midlands audience that it “shouldn’t be me making those [spending] decisions” on Network North projects – saying it would be down to regional mayors to decide exactly which projects get built.

He later admitted some of the transport projects promised as replacements for HS2 were only “illustrative” examples of what could be done, as he was grilled by BBC Radio 2 host Jeremy Vine.

The PM got impatient during the testy exchange – ducking questions about the list of projects unveiled for his Network North plans, having promised “every penny” of £36bn taken from HS2 would be redirected.

Sunak admitted some HS2 replacement projects ‘illustrative’
Sunak admitted some HS2 replacement projects ‘illustrative’ (PA)

Asked if it was a mistake to claim money would be used to extend the Metrolink tram network to Manchester airport – when that has already opened – Mr Sunak said: “No … Well, look, there’s a range of illustrative projects that could be funded. But ultimately it’s going to be local leaders are in charge.”

The BBC host challenged the PM, saying: “None of this stuff going to happen, is it?” Mr Sunak replied: “No – that’s completely not right. Do you know why it’s going to happen? It’s because actually, that money is going to be given to local areas.”

Mr Vine said the pledge of “£100m for a mass transit system for Bristol” was listed – but had disappeared a day later. “You keep pointing out these things … Money is going to be given to local mayors or local councils in all of these areas,” said the PM.

The same list included a statement that the Leamside Line – a North East line closed in 1964 – will be reopened. But Mr Harper said it was only “an example”. A newer version of the document said the £1.8bn allocated to the North East from funding pots “could part fund the reopening of the Leamside Line”.

Keir Starmer attending Labour’s Business Forum on Monday
Keir Starmer attending Labour’s Business Forum on Monday (PA)

Mr Sunak defended his decision to row back on net zero policy promises, such as pushing back the ban on petrol and diesel car sales from 2030 to 2035, and weakening the plan to phase out gas boilers.

The PM said it “saves all of you money” and argued that he wanted to achieve net zero carbon emissions in a way that “doesn’t bankrupt the country.” He added: “We’re not watering down anything.”

Labour leader Sir Keir told his own event of business leaders on Monday that he is primed for an election as soon as May – as he warned that the Tories would drag the campaign into the gutter.

Speaking at a business forum at the Labour conference, the party leader said: “It will either be May or October, and our team is ready for May because I don’t think anybody would rule out May.”

Sir Keir added: “In terms of how it will be run, I think it will unfortunately descend into a place which isn’t about big politics. I think it will go low from the government’s point of view.”

Pointing to Mr Sunak’s watering down of net zero, he said the government was “making decisions in the short-term interest of opening up divides for the purpose of an election.” He added: “If we do come into government, you will be coming into government with us”.

Meanwhile, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said ministers would be blocked from using private jets when they could get regular flights under a Labour government, amid ongoing criticism of Mr Sunak’s travel plans.

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