The polls suggest that people believe it is time for change. After 13 years of Conservative-led government and five Conservative prime ministers, Mr Sunak concluded that the only way for change was for the government to remain the same.
To persuade people to continue voting Conservative, he then attacked the Conservatives’ record over the last 13 years. For example, HS2, the infrastructure project that the last seven Conservative transport ministers assured a skeptical nation was the best way forward, is no longer the best way forward and is being torn apart.
Mr Sunak blamed this on “mismanagement”. He then announced that he would replace the rail project with a slew of other rail projects managed by the same Department for Transport that, as the disgruntled Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said this week, oversaw the construction of a railway ten times more expensive than a comparable one Project in France.
In fact, many of the 70 new road, rail and bus projects are welcome, particularly in the North East, which would never have access to the high speed network since the Leeds section of HS2 was scrapped.
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But what are the chances of a fully electrified route from Manchester to Hull via Bradford being built in Mr Sunak’s lifetime? What are the chances that the next Conservative leader will take a look at the rising costs of, say, the Leamside line, which also has cross-party support, and, inspired by Mr Sunak’s screaming U-turn, tear it up and use the savings to pay for it? Tax cuts, as the Rees-Mogg wing of the party wants?
After talking about transport, Mr Sunak turned to education, where his party’s 16 to 19 policy has been so successful that he is sweeping away everything, including T-levels, which were only introduced in 2020, and replacing them with something new , an Advanced British Standard. This will require more teachers, some of whom will be hired with a huge tax-free bonus of £30,000 in their first five years, suggesting that teaching unions were right this summer: low teacher pay is affecting recruitment .
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with his wife Akshata Murty on stage at the end of his keynote speech during the Conservative Party annual conference at the Manchester Central Convention Complex
Mr Sunak received one of the loudest bursts of applause for his attack on “wokery”. He said: “Patients should know when hospitals talk about men or women… a man is a man and a woman is a woman. “That’s just common sense.” The Quality Care Commission’s latest report into the failures of the Darlington’s maternity ward Memorial Hospital was distinguished by the fact that in its 25 pages the phrase “women and women in labor” was used 69 times – for this you can blame no one other than the person who woke up head of the Ministry of Health for 13 years.
With his remarkable duplicity about the need for change, Mr Sunak also spoke about the need to change perceptions of himself. In the last year he has become known for his consistency, after the rot of the Boris Johnson era and the doldrums of Liz Truss’s 44 Days. Mr Sunak steadied the ship and began untying ugly knots such as Northern Ireland’s trade arrangements.
But based on developments so far, consistency alone has not proven sufficient for the polls, which still give Labor a commanding lead.
Aside from not hosting illegal parties and not outlasting a salad, voters are finding it difficult to understand what Mr Sunak’s term in office is all about.
READ MORE: NORTH EAST TRANSPORT PROJECTS CAN BENEFIT FROM SCRAPING HS2
His conference speech will not have really helped, since the railways – which made up a large part of his hour-long address – are not high on the priority list for many people when the cost of living is oppressive, schools are literally crumbling, waterways are polluted, and one in ten of we are on an NHS waiting list.
Richmond MP and his wife Akshata Murty at the conference in Manchester
Mr Sunak sensibly talked about making smoking illegal, but such Blair-like policies are instinctively rejected by the freedom-loving Tories. The conservative magazine The Spectator immediately described it as “a terrible policy” and rumors circulated that Ms Truss would vote against it.
His party’s right would have preferred a red-hot speech about tax cuts and economic growth, which is why they have pushed behind Ms Truss, Nigel Farage, Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch in recent days as they try to choose the next leader.
But the most pressing question is not really about the long-term changes that Mr Sunak is said to be interested in. It’s about short-term changes. The Labor Party under Keir Starmer has approached polling day cautiously, trying not to upset the apple cart and squander the party’s 20-point lead.
Is that changing now? Does the change to A-levels challenge Sunderland’s Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary who was so calm during the RAAC crisis, with the need to deliver reform that goes beyond scrapping tax relief for private schools?
And despite the embarrassment that Britain, once the birthplace of railways, has only a half-finished railway line left to Birmingham, the 700 projects worth a total of £36 billion in the new Network North are giving Labor a headache – can they afford it? to keep up with them? complete HS2? – and that is a certain change.
READ MORE: ECHO COMMENT: What does it say about Britain, the birthplace of railways, that it can no longer build railways?