Rishi Sunak axed the northern leg of the HS2 high-speed rail line to Manchester, promised sweeping education reforms and announced a smoking crackdown as he told Conservative conference he would take “radical” decisions to change Britain.
The prime minister argued that £36bn could be saved by scrapping HS2 north of Birmingham, and that the money would be recycled into better value road, rail and bus projects, including links between northern cities.
In his speech to the Tory conference in Manchester, Sunak also promised major reforms to 16-19 education, with the introduction of an “advanced British standard” that would merge A-levels and the more vocational T levels into a single qualification.
He said the new qualification would be more rigorous, with students typically studying five subjects rather than three, and claimed education would in future be his top spending priority.
Sunak also announced that the legal age for smoking would be raised by one year, every year, so that a 14-year-old today would never legally be sold a cigarette. New restrictions on the sale of vapes would also be introduced.
“Our mission is to fundamentally change our country,” he said. “Where a consensus is false we will challenge it,” he added, citing his recent decision to water down Britain’s net zero targets.
Sunak’s heavily trailed decision to axe the second phase of HS2 during his keynote speech in Manchester, which will now not have a high-speed link with Birmingham, has dominated the four-day event.
A furious Andy Street, Tory mayor of the West Midlands, said Sunak was “cancelling the future” and was on Wednesday considering whether to resign. “He will respond appropriately,” said one ally.
Sunak said the government’s new priority was to develop better east-west links across the Pennines between northern cities. He said the business case for HS2 had changed, including because of the reduction in post-Covid business travel.
“We will reinvest every single penny, £36bn, in hundreds of new transport projects across the north, midlands and the rest of the country,” he said to cheers from party representatives.
He announced an “ambitious” new “Network North” rail project, including a fully electrified line that incorporated a new station at Bradford, along with a tram system in Leeds and a host of new road schemes. He said HS2 trains would run north to Manchester from Birmingham along existing, slower rail lines.
Sunak also confirmed HS2 would be built from Birmingham to Euston in central London, rather than stopping at a new station at Old Oak Common. He announced new management for the troubled London leg of the project.
The prime minister said the HS2 decision proved he was willing to break with a “30-year-old status quo” in British politics, encompassing the post-Thatcher era, which had been dominated by “vested interests”. The Conservatives have been in power for 17 or those 30 years.
Sunak has appeared to relish the fight with four former prime ministers — Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson — over HS2, along with business leaders and regional mayors.
“We are going to keep making big decisions, pick fights and see what Labour does,” said one senior cabinet minister. Labour claims Sunak is taking erratic decisions, eroding business confidence in Britain.
Sunak’s 65-minute speech saw him present himself as a “change candidate” at the next election, even though his party has now been in power for 13 years. He argued that Britain will not have to turn to Labour to secure a change of direction.
With opinion polls typically putting the Tories 15 to 20 points behind Labour, Sunak’s conference speech marked an attempt by the prime minister to change the political agenda and force Labour to come up with its own policy responses.
Sunak said that he would “deliver” tax cuts in recognition of calls from Tory MPs in Manchester for immediate reduction in the tax burden, but warned that inflation had to be brought under control first.
He also delighted Tory activists by claiming Britain had recovered faster from the Covid pandemic than France and Germany — according to recently revised official figures — “not in spite of Brexit but because of Brexit”.
On NHS doctors’ strikes, Sunak took a tough stance, claiming medics wanted “massive, unaffordable” pay rises and claiming the dispute was “about politics not patients”.
Sunak also picked up what has become an almost obligatory theme of platform speeches at the Tory conference, an attack on allegedly “woke” attitudes on transgender issues. “A man is a man and a woman is a woman and that’s just common sense,” he said to rapturous applause.
In a personal closing section, he said: “I’m proud to Britain’s first Asian prime minister but I’m even prouder that it’s not a big deal.” He added: “It’s time for a change — and we are it.”