Rishi Sunak announced plans to ban the sale of cigarettes, scrapped A-levels and cancelled the second phase of HS2 on Wednesday as he unveiled a “radical” agenda aimed at winning the next election.
Giving his first conference speech as Conservative Party leader, Mr Sunak invoked Margaret Thatcher as he tried to rebrand himself as a force for change in British politics.
Mr Sunak railed against a “30-year political status quo” and declared “politics doesn’t work the way it should” in an implicit criticism of the last four Conservative prime ministers.
In what he described as “three huge decisions to change the direction of our country”, the Prime Minister announced a ban on cigarette sales that would be gradually implemented, with the legal age rising each year, and unveiled plans to replace A-levels and T-levels with a new qualification.
He also defied Tory critics and cancelled the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2, using the £36 billion saving to fund other transport projects and repair potholes.
Mr Sunak chose to include an unusually high number of policy announcements in his conference speech, gambling that by being “bold” he can persuade voters frustrated with politicians and looking for a change after 13 years of Tory rule to back him.
He said: “We will be bold. We will be radical. We will face resistance and we will meet it.
“We will give the country what it so sorely needs, and yet too often has been denied: a government prepared to make long-term decisions so that we can build a brighter future – for everyone. Be in no doubt: it is time for a change.”
Elsewhere in the speech, he said: “Do we want a government committed to making long-term decisions, prepared to be radical in the face of challenges, and to take on vested interests? Or do we want to stand still – and quietly accept more of the same?
“You either think this country needs to change or you don’t. And if you do, then you should stand with me – and every person in this hall. You should stand with the Conservatives.”
He also said: “Doing this job, I meet and talk to inspirational men and women across our country. You see that our most potent strength, our most powerful resource, our greatest hope is our people.
“But what I have learnt is that there is an undeniable sense that politics just doesn’t work the way it should.”
In his speech in Manchester, the joint longest by a Conservative leader at a party conference, Mr Sunak announced plans to ban the sale of cigarettes entirely by gradually increasing the age at which it is legal to buy cigarettes.
Currently, buying cigarettes is banned until someone turns 18. Under the new plan, the age of sale would rise by one year every year from 2027 onwards.
This means that by 2043, only those over the age of 35 would be able to make such purchases legally.
It mirrors the law in New Zealand and means in effect that everyone currently aged 14 or younger will never be able to buy cigarettes legally, while people who smoke now will not be affected.
Mr Sunak admitted such restrictions were “never easy” for a Conservative to take but argued that there was “no safe level of smoking”, pointing to the deaths it causes and the knock-on impact on the NHS.
He said the changes were a chance to “do the right thing for our kids: we must stop teenagers taking up cigarettes in the first place”.
The plan would mean that in the future a “generation can grow up smoke-free”.
However, it sparked an immediate backlash. Liz Truss, the former prime minister, is among those expected to vote against the plan, which will go to a free vote in Parliament while other Tory MPs said it was “ludicrous” and “completely unenforceable”.
Health campaigners welcomed the plans, with Sajid Javid, a former health secretary, saying Mr Sunak would “be on the right side of history”.
Labour – which had already proposed such a ban – signalled on Wednesday that it would lend its MPs’ votes to Mr Sunak to get the legislation through, although civil liberties groups said the plan was “preposterous, illiberal” and “unconservative”.
Downing Street could not say when the vote will take place, but a spokesman said “Rishi Sunak is a man in a hurry”.
Replacement for A-levels
The Prime Minister also unveiled plans to replace A-levels and T-levels with what he has called the “Advanced British Standard”.
It would mean pupils would typically study five subjects in the final year of school, rather than three as is usual now. Maths and English would also be compulsory for all pupils until the age of 18.
Teenagers will choose a combination of subjects, called majors and minors, from both academic and technical options.
However, Downing Street later made it clear that the switchover to the new system would take at least a decade to implement and that children who have just started primary school were likely to be the first cohort to take the new qualification.
Mr Sunak also said that pupils would spend at least 195 hours more time with a teacher over two years with the number of taught hours increased by an extra 15 per cent for most 16-19 pupils, bringing the country closer to international norms.
He announced an initial investment of £600 million over two years to lay the groundwork for the plan, including funding for tax-free bonuses of up to £30,000 over the first five years of their career for teachers in key shortage subjects.
Mr Sunak told the conference: “First, this will finally deliver on the promise of parity of esteem between academic and technical education, because all students will sit the Advanced British Standard.
“Second, we will raise the floor ensuring that our children leave school literate and numerate because with the Advanced British Standard all students will study some form of maths and English to 18 with extra help for those who struggle most. In our country, no child should be left behind.”
Both health and education policy areas are devolved, meaning the political parties running administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will have to decide whether to adopt or reject the same policies.
HS2 cut back
As expected, the Prime Minister formally announced that the second leg of HS2, which was due to run from Birmingham to Manchester, will now not go ahead.
But he promised that “every single penny” of the £36 billion saving will be reinvested in new transport projects, mostly in the North and the Midlands.
More focus will be put on East-West connections rather than North-South, with £12 billion spent improving links between Manchester to Liverpool. Almost a quarter of the money saved, £8.3 billion, will be spent on pothole repairs.
HS2 will now connect to London Euston, rather than the Old Oak Common station on the capital’s outskirts. But the Euston development will be overhauled, saving £6.5 billion.
The decision was taken despite protests from Tory advocates for HS2, including Andy Street, the party’s West Midlands Mayor.
Mr Sunak attempted to flip criticism into a political advantage linked to his wider theme of challenging consensus and being honest with the public to deliver in the “long term”.
He said: “There will be people I respect, people in our own party, who will oppose it. But there is nothing ambitious about simply pouring more and more money into the wrong project.”
As well as casting himself as a force for change, Mr Sunak attempted to brand Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, as the continuity choice for voters.
Mr Sunak said at one point: “He is the walking definition of the 30-year political status quo I am here to end.”
Sir Keir is expected to respond to the comments at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, which starts this weekend.
A general election is expected to take place in autumn 2024.
Mr Sunak also grouped the New Labour years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown with that of his Tory successors: David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
He said: “We’ve had 30 years of a political system which incentivises the easy decision, not the right one.
“Thirty years of vested interests standing in the way of change. Thirty years of rhetorical ambition which achieves little more than a short-term headline.”
It is rare for a party leader to be so openly critical of predecessors – though the criticism of “vested interests” echoed lines used by Ms Truss in her conference speech last year.
The 30-year reference was a nod to Thatcher, who was forced from office in 1990 and continues to be held up by party loyalists as one of the great Conservative reformers.
There were more explicit references to the former prime minister. Mr Sunak compared his own upbringing to that of Thatcher, calling the Tories “the party of the grocer’s daughter and the pharmacist’s son”.
At another point, the Prime Minister quoted Thatcher to support his argument that he will only make major tax cuts when inflation is brought under control – an approach he said she also took.
He said: “Everything that we want to achieve requires getting inflation under control. Inflation is the biggest destroyer of all – of industry, of jobs, of savings, and of society.
“No policy which puts at risk the defeat of inflation – no matter its short-term attraction – can be right.
“Not my words, but those of Margaret Thatcher: as true now as they were then. I know you want tax cuts, I want them too –and we will deliver them.
“But the best tax cut we can give people right now is to halve inflation and ease the cost of living.”