Sunak: I’m the change candidate who will break the status quo

Rishi Sunak and his team prepare for his Conservative Party conference speech, where he is set to position himself as the change candidate
Rishi Sunak and his team prepare for his Conservative Party conference speech, where he is set to position himself as the change candidate - Stefan Rousseau/PA

Rishi Sunak will vow to end 30 years of the “status quo” in politics as he tries to position himself as the change candidate for the next general election.

In his first speech to the Conservative Party conference as leader, Mr Sunak will seek to paint Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, as the continuity choice for voters.

The Prime Minister is set to announce that the second leg of HS2, from Birmingham to Manchester, will be scrapped – ending weeks of speculation and the scaling back of a flagship Tory building project.

But in turn, he will promise billions of pounds for other transport schemes, arguing that he is a political leader who is honest with the public and willing to take big calls ahead of an election being planned for autumn 2024.

Other announcements will be signalled. Moves considered in recent weeks include scrapping A-levels, further action to crack down on poor-quality university degrees, and new anti-smoking measures.

Rishi Sunak looks around the Exhibitors' Hall at the Tory conference on Tuesday
Rishi Sunak looks around the Exhibitors' Hall at the Tory conference on Tuesday - Carl Court/AFP via Getty Images

Speaking in Manchester on Wednesday, Mr Sunak will say: “There is the undeniable sense that politics just doesn’t work the way it should.”

He will say there is a “feeling that Westminster is a broken system – and the same goes for Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont”.

‌He added: “It isn’t anger, it is an exhaustion with politics. In particular, politicians saying things, and then nothing ever changing.

“And you know what – people are right. Politics doesn’t work the way it should.

“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.”

‌He will add: “Our political system is too focused on short-term advantage, not long-term success.

“Politicians spent more time campaigning for change than actually delivering it. Our mission is to fundamentally change our country.”

The approach reflects a belief among Tory election strategists that voters are frustrated with politicians of all stripes and are demanding fundamental change.

The speech – one of the most politically significant Mr Sunak has given in his year in Number 10 – could be his last to a Tory party conference before the next election, if it is held earlier than the autumn.

A Conservative source said that the speech will show how Mr Sunak “wants to change the way our political system works and end the 30-year-old political status quo”.

The reference to 30 years is a nod to Margaret Thatcher, whose reforming premiership is still held up by Tories as a model. She was forced from office in 1990, 33 years ago.

It is also a critique not just of the Blair-Brown New Labour years but the four Tory prime ministers since then – David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss.

The speech is the result of months of strategising from Mr Sunak and his team about how to overturn Labour’s vast polling lead and give the Tories a fighting chance of re-election.

After a year focussed on calming markets and dousing fires in the economy, NHS and illegal migration that he inherited, Mr Sunak has decided to shift gears and make big policy moves.

His recent decision to delay some flagship net zero measures, including the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars while introducing a new pro-driver Plan for Motorists, will be followed by another “long-term” decision – to scrap the second leg of HS2 over spiralling costs.

The Prime Minister will justify the decision in similar terms to his net zero move – by claiming he is being honest on unrealistic, costly policies.

Promising HS2 trains could travel on from Birmingham to Manchester on existing lines – at old speeds, but without switching trains – could help to limit the backlash, along with a pledge that the line will reach down to London Euston, not just Old Oak Common on the capital’s outskirts.

Formal confirmation of the move is set to escalate the confrontation with some HS2 backers in his party – not least George Osborne, the former chancellor who championed the project.

‌But Tory strategists believe that by taking eye-catching policy decisions that Mr Sunak believes in, based around the themes of long-termism and honesty, voters will see him as a politician determined to bring about change.

However, no major tax cut is expected to be unveiled in the speech, despite continued calls from scores of Tories for such a move.

With the target to halve inflation this year not yet hit and soaring debt interest payments leaving the Treasury little fiscal headroom, it has been decided that now is not the time.

Mr Sunak will also talk about his upbringing, including how his grandparents ended up moving to Britain and what his rise to Number 10 says about the success of multiculturalism.

It will be the second time he has raised the issue after Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, said in a hardline speech on immigration last week that multiculturalism had “failed”.

Underpinning the approach is the belief that to win the next election, stretching the current 13-year Tory run in power by another five years, Mr Sunak must embody change.

So the Prime Minister will use his address to try to frame Sir Keir, the Labour leader who became an MP after a decades-long legal career, as the real status quo candidate.

Mr Sunak will say: “The Labour Party have set out their stall: to do and say as little as possible and hope no one notices.

“They want to take people’s votes for granted and keep doing politics the same old way. It is a bet on people’s apathy.

“It does not speak to any higher purpose, or brighter future. It is about power for the sake of power. It is, in short, everything that is wrong with our politics.”

The Conservative Party has hovered between 15-20 percentage points behind Labour in polls for much of this year, though a recent tightening in some surveys after the net zero announcements has offered it hope.

But Tory election strategists believe that Sir Keir has made a political miscalculation by not announcing bolder reforms while being in the lead. They hope they can now seize the change mantle.

The Labour leader will get his own chance to counter the messaging and announce his own policy moves at his party’s conference in Liverpool next weekend – a break with tradition, as the Tory conference usually comes last in the diary.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.