Sunak's Track Switch: Derailing HS2 and Steering Political Conversations

This had been billed as the conference where Rishi Sunak showed his true colours, where his vision and his character were articulated to a party about to face a general election. So did he succeed?


The immediate takeaway is his decision to cancel the second leg of HS2. This project had been backed by the Conservatives for a decade and a half. The decision was a departure from the view of four former prime ministers, a cacophony of former chancellors, and every single English mayor. The main reason comes down to cost – if it had continued as planned it would be the biggest infrastructure project, with the biggest bill, in British history and that would have required a paring back of ambitions elsewhere. Instead, hundreds of smaller projects will now begin, mainly in the North, but also in the Midlands and Wales (and you can bet it will feature heavily on election leaflets next year too). But the thing to remember is that like his announcement on Net Zero, the decision is ultimately about freeing up billions to allow for tax cuts in election year.


The conversations in the receptions and the conference floor were all about Labour – what next week would bring, what the contrast would be and more important, what would be learnt. The Conservatives will feel that they laid out a series of policy traps – the biggest being whether Labour continues its support of HS2 (or risk a divide with people like Andy Burnham). How they might respond to Suella Braverman’s comments on immigration, or indeed on wider spending commitments – there were a series of announcements that all had the express aim of creating political headaches for Starmer.


Rishi Sunak has often been characterised as an accountant or finance bod removed from the realities of most of modern Britain, and because of his rapid ascent from entering parliament to entering No10, he is someone who is still relatively unknown his own colleagues. This conference has been about trying to change this perception. He wanted people to think of him as a decision-taker. He wanted to come across as serious, and yet with a sense of youthful energy and, to the extent that some have been calling him ‘tetchy’, he probably did succeed in showing more of himself. However, to allow this conference to be dominated by non-answers on HS2 also showed a stubbornness and an inflexibility that will leave many contemplating what the future looks like.


The question asked more than any other at these conferences was, ‘how are you finding it?’. What people are trying to work out is what you’ve picked up in conversations that give a picture of the health and fortune of the party. This week in Manchester, the party looked a more diminished force – fewer MPs, far fewer activists, and a caution about how an election might be fought. To see Truss and Farage waltzing around the activist base, whilst the No10 stuck rigidly to a pre-prepared script on its announcements didn’t feel like a party at ease with itself.

What now?

The PM’s speech did showcase an appetite for change, some serious new policies were unveiled, such as the smoking ban, the new British Standard for education and skills, and hints at reforms in welfare and the size of the state. He now goes into a winter in which he’ll host the first AI summit, travel to India to try and strike a trade deal, and see the final legislative agenda of the parliament. All this means that No10 is fighting to show they mean business and that he personally can deliver regardless of the mood music. For business, there’s a wider point forming that rigorous data and research can change minds in this No10 and there isn’t a fear of shaking the tree of reform. A big political year has formally begun.