Politics

'Misdirection and lies': Politicians, activists and more weigh in on Rishi Sunak's conference speech

The prime minister painted himself as the change candidate. But his raft of new policies have got a mixed reaction from those in the know

Sunak speech

Sunak promised long-term thinking. How have his new policies gone down. Image: Sky News/YouTube

After 13 years of Conservative rule, the country has a change candidate: the current prime minister. That was Rishi Sunak’s big pitch as he concluded the Conservative Party Conference with a speech setting out a new policy agenda dominated by the scrapping of the northern leg of high-speed railway HS2.

Introduced by his rarely-seen wife Akshata Murty, Sunak promised reforms in education, transport, health and beyond. It was an attempt to break with a so-called 30 year political consensus – a period in which the Conservatives have been in government for 17 years.

Amid worries over delays to the Renters Reform Bill, there was no mention for housing. As the dust settles on Rishi Sunak’s conference speech, experts, campaigners and politicians have weighed in.

HS2

“The facts have changed”, said Rishi Sunak as he scrapped the northern leg of HS2. Instead, he promised £36billion for transport projects across the country.

The big, widely-anticipated U-turn wasn’t popular with Manchester mayor Andy Burnham.

“It always seems that people here where I live and where I kind of represent can be treated as second class citizens when it comes to transport,” said Burnham.

West Midlands mayor Andy Street said he was “incredibly disappointed” by the decision but had decided not to resign from the Tory party.

“Running high-speed rail from London to north of Birmingham is only half a job, and makes today’s Manchester decision so agonising,” Street said, adding he was examining whether a “private sector consortium” could deliver the project.

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Smoking

If you’re 14, you’ll never be able to buy cigarettes. To combat cancers caused by smoking, Rishi Sunak announced a gradual phase-out of smoking, with the legal age raised every year.

This was welcomed by the IPPR thinktank, who challenged the prime minister to go further.

“The UK has lagged behind other countries on public health this decade,” said Chris Thomas, head of IPPR’s commission on health and prosperity. “Many lives and livelihoods have been the price. So it’s entirely right that the prime minister has proposed such bold, evidence-led action on tobacco today – he should be congratulated on his ambition.

“A coherent public health strategy now demands similar ambition on obesity, gambling, alcohol and housing in the coming months. Without that, the path to prosperity looks ever fainter for the UK.” 

Net zero

Rishi Sunak doubled down on his net zero U-turns – pushing back key targets while insisting the UK can still reach the legally-binding 2050 threshold.

By focusing on the costs of net zero, Sunak obscured the fact his policy will take the country further away from its climate obligations, said Leo Murray, co-director of climate charity Possible. 

“He can’t water down our net-zero commitments and then claim we’ll still magically meet our own targets and international obligations. He needs to tell us how it’s possible, especially when he’s ploughing billions into seventy new road schemes which will choke our climate,” said Murray.

“It’s a lie to say that net zero would cost families thousands of pounds. If he wants to ‘treat household budgets with respect’ and ‘bring people with us’ he should just look at the evidence. All the polling shows that the public is clamouring for climate action, and that a transition to renewables will bring down bills for good.

“People are already behind net zero, but the prime minister is doing his best to wreck it by turning our climate into a political football. We have the chance of a lifetime to improve people’s lives, transform our economy and protect our climate. Let’s not throw it in seven different made up bins.”

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Trans ‘bullying’

“We shouldn’t get bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be – they can’t,” Rishi Sunak told the crowd in Manchester.

“A man is a man and a woman is a woman. That’s just common sense.”

Cleo Madeleine, a spokesperson for the charity Gendered Intelligence, said these were “ludicrous accusations that transgender people are somehow bullying the prime minister”.

“There’s a lot of misdirection towards trans issues, making it clear this is how they’re going to fight criticism – directing it towards trans people,” Madeleine told The Big Issue.

“There is a real political strategy at work here, where Sunak’s situating himself as the victim, making out transgender people are somehow a large or powerful group. At the end of the day we’re 0.5% of the population, on average we tend to be low income, have low income, worse housing, worse jobs.

“It’s so unserious – it really shows that ultimately the people casting out these accusations are bullies.”

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