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Sunak’s Conference Speech: A Desperate Leader Without Any Plan

The Prime Minister knows that he has not shown any great vision of what he believes or how he wants Britain to look, writes Jonathan Lis

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty at the 2023 Conservative Party Conference. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA/Alamy

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It is safe to say that this year’s Conservative Party Conference did not set the country alight. There was a familiar far-right speech on migration from Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt issued a toe-curling appeal to “stand up and fight”, words she then repeated nine times in quick succession. And then Rishi Sunak took to the stage.

The speech was, of course, bad. In terms of substance there was no overarching structure or cohesion. Sunak’s delivery was characteristically grating and inauthentic, alternately sounding like an out-of-work actor auditioning for a role on Jackanory and a father coaxing his toddler to eat their greens.

Politically, the attack on Labour Leader Keir Starmer felt weak and half-hearted. Sunak knows as well as anyone that Starmer, for all his faults, does not pose a danger to Conservative voters or anyone else, and could never represent the bogeyman so routinely projected onto Jeremy Corbyn.

And yet, these were not even the worst things about Sunak’s speech. This was an hour-long audition to the British public that managed to be simultaneously nasty and hollow. When ideas came, they felt ill-conceived and short-termist – and when the Prime Minister ran out of ideas, he simply turned to ideology.

The headline, of course, was the decision to scrap a significant proportion of the HS2 railway – the branch that was intended to stretch from Birmingham to the north of England. To add insult to injury, Sunak drastically scaled-back the development plans for London’s Euston station, to make it almost impossible for the additional rail (and necessary capacity) to be added by a future government. Subsequently, it has emerged that the line may not even reach Euston at all.

The fiasco appears to epitomise Britain’s paralysis and failure. We seem unable to build major projects, invest in our long-term future, or address our lack of productivity – a problem significantly exacerbated by the UK’s flagging infrastructure.

David Cameron, George Osborne, and Boris Johnson reached rare agreement by condemning the plans on social media. A Government elected to ‘level up’ the Midlands and north was discarding the most direct way to achieve it – and announcing that from a podium in Manchester.

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This was the pattern of much of the speech. Despite Sunak’s solemn appeals to our long-term future, everything was mediated around a need to improve his personal polling before an anticipated electoral drubbing next year.

His other headline policy announcements – the introduction of an entirely new exam qualification (the ‘Advanced British Standard’), and the phased de facto criminalisation of smoking – did not feel as though they had emerged from anything other than Sunak’s personal hobby-horses.

In the first instance, given the current crisis in education (and when schools are literally crumbling), it seemed strange at best to be focusing on radical new reforms instead of steadying a listing ship. In the second, it ran entirely counter to all of Sunak’s Conservative mantras of personal freedom and responsibility to block adults buying cigarettes.

The speech was devoid of any kind of intellectual consistency and these policy announcements also felt pointless; perhaps even tragic. Almost nobody in the country expects the Prime Minister to be around in a year’s time to implement any of them.

And so to the dishonour. Early on in the speech, Sunak signalled that this was not going to be a moment of truth-telling.

He told the conference that our economy was growing “not despite Brexit, but because of it” – contrary to the opinion of almost every credible economist in the country (and out of it). For good measure, he claimed that our “Brexit freedoms” were making us more competitive and congratulated Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch for “cutting away Brussels red tape”. Both claims are an outright lie.

Anyone with basic knowledge of our departure from the EU knows that it was the most comprehensive imposition of bureaucracy in our modern history and has sent multiple viable businesses either abroad or to the wall. Sunak not only lacked the courage or integrity to acknowledge any flaws in the policy, but lied through his teeth that it was all going exactly to plan.

But the worst parts of the speech were those that punched-down on some of the most vulnerable groups in society.

First, trans people. In a grim echo of Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 conference speech, when she told delegates that “children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay”, the Prime Minister opined that “it shouldn’t be controversial for parents to know what their children are being taught in school about relationships… we shouldn’t get bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be. They can’t. A man is a man and a woman is a woman. That’s just common sense”.

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That not only misrepresents trans people’s position, but also contradicts UK law. People born into the male or female sex can, in fact, have a change of gender fully recognised – and have been able to do so for many years. It is not ‘common sense’ to assert otherwise in such uncompromising terms, but bigotry.

Then, of course, came the familiar refrains on illegal migration and the Government’s obsession with deporting migrants, whether genuine asylum seekers or not, to Rwanda. Sunak depicted the issue of irregular migration not as providing a safe haven for desperate refugees but as something opposing “sovereignty, safety and control”. He declared that “our new law will ensure that if you come here illegally, you’ll be detained and swiftly removed” – even though he has steadfastly refused to permit any alternatives through safe and legal routes. It is a policy of naked cruelty that depends on people’s ignorance of the law to garner public support.

Sunak’s tactics are painfully transparent. The Prime Minister was wounded by Labour’s attack of ‘Inaction Man’, and his five early pledges that lacked any ambition. He knows that he has not shown any great vision of what he believes or how he wants Britain to look, and has belatedly realised that on current projections he and his party stand to be humiliated in the general election. So he is now tossing out a succession of policies, visions and fronts in a ‘culture war’ – a scattergun of cynical desperation to replace methodical or reasoned governance.  

In the end, none of it will likely matter. Of course, the right-wing press delivered approving headlines, but their power has been waning for many years. The Sun relegated the speech to a small paragraph in the top right-hand corner of the front page, almost hidden from view. Few spectators believed that this was the speech of a man heading for electoral victory, and early polls suggest little impact on the current trajectory.

It was perhaps fitting that Sunak concluded his speech with the line “it is time for a change, and we are it”. On the strength of this conference, and every available piece of evidence, Britain is very shortly heading for a change of government – and our Prime Minister for a change of career.

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