U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak used his headline speech at the close of the conference to reassert his authority and outline a number of new policies.
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MANCHESTER, ENGLAND — U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday unveiled a raft of new policies aimed at shoring up waning support for his Conservative Party ahead of next year’s General Election.
Included in the measures was the anticipated but controversial decision to scrap the northern leg of a planned HS2 high-speed rail network intended to connect industry across the country.
Sunak used the decision to position himself as the change candidate, saying that he would “fundamentally change” the country.
“HS2 is the ultimate example of the old consensus: The result of a project whose costs have more than doubled, for which the economic case has been massively weakened with the changes to travel post-Covid,” he said, delivering his headline speech at the close of the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, England.
“The facts have changed. The right thing to do when the facts change is to have the courage to change direction,” he said.
Sunak confirmed speculation that the government would ax the HS2 high-speed train route between Birmingham and Manchester amid mounting costs, saying that money from the project — around £36 billion — would be reinvested in other regional transport links.
HS2 was given a budget of £55.7 billion in 2015 but costs have since ballooned, hitting an estimated £98 billion in 2020. Since then, soaring inflation has pushed costs even higher.
However, critics on both sides of the political spectrum have accused the prime minister of stifling the countries’ long-term prospects in the interests of short-term political gain.
West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, who has played a pivotal role in boosting the Conservatives’ position in the region, said Sunak was “canceling the future” and has reportedly considered quitting over the decision.
Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, told the BBC Sunak was treating the north like “second-class citizens.” Building of the London to Birmingham leg of the route is already underway.
The measures come as the ruling Conservatives, 13 years in power, trail opposition Labour Party by 20 points in the polls, raising the risks of a potentially agonizing defeat at next year’s General Election.
Sunak had intended to use the conference to strengthen support among party members and the electorate at large ahead of next year’s General Election, unveiling a new campaign slogan: “Long-term decisions for a brighter future.”
Indeed, in his speech he attempted to position himself as the change candidate, saying “politics just doesn’t work the way it should,” adding that his announcements would “fundamentally change” the country. “I will lead in a different way,” he said.
However, rising discord from radical factions within his Tory party has dominated the event, serving a major blow to his leadership.
Meantime, opinion polls suggest that the public think Sunak is failing to deliver on his five key priorities: to halve inflation; grow the economy; lower public debt; reduce NHS waiting lists; and stop small migrant boats from reaching the country.
According to an IPSOS poll released Wednesday, almost three-quarters (71%) think Sunak is doing a bad job of reducing NHS waiting lists, while nearly two-thirds (63%) think he is failing to ease the cost of living amid still high inflation.