All change. That’s the message Rishi Sunak wanted voters to take away from his Conservative conference speech today. He has recognised that the baggage of the past 13 years is a key reason that he looks set to be ejected from office. Instead of asking voters to “let me finish the job”, the Prime Minister understands that the discontinuity in government since 2019 requires him to offer something new. This is the right strategy.
But Sunak did not go far enough. He criticised policymaking over the past 30 years but did little to develop his argument. Wary of the disunity within the party and the influential factions surrounding Liz Truss and Suella Braverman – ever present over the past three days – Sunak avoided explicitly criticising the chaos of the Truss and Johnson years, the inertia of Theresa May and the poor policymaking of David Cameron. This was his opportunity to have done so. It was a sign of his weakness that he could not.
The policies that Sunak announced reflected his own personal interests – in long-term policymaking, fiscal conservatism and education – rather than voters’ key concerns. The cost-of-living crisis and the NHS are set to dominate the next election. They are top of voters’ priorities. Instead, the Prime Minister announced that HS2 beyond Birmingham has been scrapped. In its place, a series of road and rail improvements are promised. The announcement invites the question raised by Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester: why must the north choose between great local and national infrastructure when London gets both? The details of “Network North” will now be scrutinised. The politics will depend on Labour’s response.
On education, Sunak announced a new “Advanced British Standard” which will combine A-levels and their vocational cousin, T-levels. Is he effectively scrapping T-levels then? The lack of teachers in the system – Sunak hopes to stem the exodus with bonus payments – will make implementing the policy before the next election difficult. Students will also study some form of maths and English until the age of 18. The problem for Sunak is that few voters round the country were desperate for a new curriculum. Likewise, his decision to ban cigarettes for the younger generation – channelling his inner Jacinda Ardern – was not what voters are clamouring for.
The focus on the long term is a wise response to the political chaos of recent years – as Keir Starmer’s team knows – but Sunak does not yet have the policy message to support it. This speech was progress, a move away from the short-termism of his first year in office. But the risk is that it reflected Sunak’s own convictions and not those of voters.
[See also: Rishi Sunak can’t campaign]