Sunak Faces Tough Task to Reset Tory Appeal in Time for UK Election

Barely a year ago, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took over a government in free-fall, shunned by the markets and riven by internal squabbling. The task facing him may be even harder now.

(Bloomberg) — Barely a year ago, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took over a government in free-fall, shunned by the markets and riven by internal squabbling. The task facing him may be even harder now.

Sunak, 43, is slated to take the stage Wednesday in Manchester for what is shaping up to be the biggest speech of his political career. The premier is expected to lay out his plan to “fundamentally change” Britain in a keynote address to the ruling Conservative Party’s annual conference.

The address is Sunak’s best chance for a reset in the eyes of voters ahead of a general election widely expected next fall. But the conference in Manchester has been dominated by questions about whether he would scrap part of the HS2 high-speed rail project linking the northern city to Birmingham.

Read More: Sunak Faces Backlash as He Prepares to Trim High-Speed Rail Plan

Ministers spent much of the four-day gathering waiting for Sunak to call a Cabinet meeting on the sidelines of the conference to ratify a decision on the HS2 project. The prime minister was expected to seek ministers’ backing to halt development of the rail’s Birmingham-to-Manchester leg while spending some of the savings to expand other east-west transport links, according to people familiar with the matter.

But the conference slogan — Long-Term Decisions for a Brighter Future – jars with the prospect of the premier scrapping a project that his five previous predecessors billed as a cornerstone of its plan to redevelop the north. It comes after Sunak watered down the party’s green agenda, again retreating on decisions his predecessors had made to chart a longer-term pathway to so-called net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’ve had thirty years of a political system which incentivizes the easy decision, not the right one,” Sunak will tell delegates on Wednesday, according to excerpts of his speech released by his office. “Thirty years of vested interests standing in the way of change.”

The danger for Sunak is that after more than 13 years of Conservative governments he’ll be unable to persuade voters that he represents change.

Read More: Tory Ministers Pressure Hunt to Cut UK Taxes Before Election

After inheriting a party that had sunk to historic lows in the polls under the disastrous premiership of Liz Truss, the party’s fifth premier in just over six years has repaired some of the Tories’ standing with voters. That was largely achieved by reversing most of Truss’s economic policies to stabilize bond and currency markets unnerved by a raft of unfunded tax cuts.

But while the Tory poll deficit behind Labour is around half the record level of near 40 points it hit last year, it’s stayed stubbornly at about 20 points for months. That’s as Sunak struggled to show he’s delivering on five key promises to voters to halve inflation, restore growth, cut net debt, reducing National Health Service waiting lists and stopping immigrants crossing the English Channel from France.

In Manchester, there have been slim pickings for those looking for new policy announcements. 

With a growing chorus within the party calling for tax cuts to attract voters, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt said he doesn’t have the fiscal power to deliver them at present, and even if he did, it would risk stoking the inflation that the government is trying to bring down.

Read More: Firebrand Tory Taps US Culture War Rhetoric to Stoke Support

A succession of ministers used their speeches to stoke division by embracing the rhetoric of US-style culture wars on issues including the environment, trans rights and immigration, and attacking Labour for its “woke” policies.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper tapped into conspiracy theories around so-called 15-minute cities; Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho falsely accused Labour of wanting to tax meat consumption, and Home Secretary Suella Braverman railed against the “luxury beliefs brigade” for defending immigrants. 

And as for HS2, Sunak spent Tuesday telling journalists he hasn’t yet made up his mind — even as a person familiar with his thinking said the premier was due to present his plan to scrap its northern leg to his Cabinet.

If he does go ahead with that plan, “I would describe this as a national tragedy here in the North of England economically at least,” Henri Murison, Chief Executive Officer of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, an association of northern businesses, told BBC radio on Wednesday. “In 100 years, the economy of the North will be smaller because of this decision.”

Richard Bowker former chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, described any decision to scrap the northern leg of HS2 as “a stake through the heart,” saying “there’s nothing that we’re aware of that will do what HS2 would have done” in terms of improving congestion on the railways around Manchester.

Sunak may pull a few policy rabbits out of his hat in his speech — with Cabinet minister Grant Shapps telling Times Radio on Wednesday that “you can be pretty confident” there will be something on HS2. That would likely include new transport projects in Northern England to sweeten the blow. A person familiar with the matter said the premier may also unveil a New Zealand-style progressive ban on smoking that ratchets up the age at which people can’t buy cigarettes.

“Our political system is too focused on short-term advantage, not long-term success,” Sunak will say.  “Politicians spent more time campaigning for change than actually delivering it.”

Given the state of the polls, it may be Sunak doesn’t get the chance to deliver change and enjoy that long-term success he seeks.

(Updates with comments on HS2 from Murison, Bowker, Shapps starting in 15th paragraph.)

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