Working to make government more effective


Will the electorate believe in Rishi Sunak's magical thinking?

The prime minister needs to convince voters he is the 'change' candidate after 13 years of Conservative government.

Sunak addressing the Manchester conference
Sunak is asking voters to believe that he’s different: not only to Starmer but also to his predecessors Truss, Johnson, May and Cameron.

Whether Rishi Sunak’s first conference speech as prime minister will also be his last depends on whether he can persuade the public to overlook the internal contradictions in his narrative, writes Hannah White

In his first conference speech as prime minister, Rishi Sunak attempted to mark a change from his immediate Conservative predecessors, but without offending their supporters. Although he did not make explicit comparisons, his lines about hard choices were designed to signal a departure from the cake-ism of Boris Johnson, and his focus on putting inflation reduction ahead of tax cuts was an implicit rebuke to Liz Truss’s failed approach.  

But not content with differentiating himself from Truss and Johnson, Sunak made the bold play of attempting to position himself as the candidate of change at the next general election, and to portray Keir Starmer as the representative of continuity. This is an ambitious strategy. As a member of the Conservative Party that has been in power for 13 years and as either chancellor or prime minister for much of the last three, there is no politician – except perhaps Johnson – who has had more opportunity to change the way in which politics has been done in this country in recent years. 

Sunak’s speech set out his policy priorities going into the next election 

Sunak’s speech delivered for those who have been calling for more policy specifics to augment the five priorities he set for himself at the start of 2023. He finally confirmed the major leak of his cancellation of HS2 and the pre-briefing of changes to post-16 education and smoking age. These policies came on top of recent announcements, including his ‘plan for motorists’, a new fund for towns and, most significantly, his changes to net zero targets.  

Together these announcements have given voters a much clearer sense of the priorities a second term Sunak government would pursue. It wasn’t all change though – some of his new transport projects for ‘Network North’ were not all that new, and some are seemingly already complete. 

The prime minister justified his own policy reversals but criticised Starmer’s 

Other policies, including the new post-16 education plan for an Advanced British Standard, represent a reversal from long-standing Conservative policy. Such reversals and changes of approach – including on HS2 –  were presented by the prime minister as a sign of a statesmanlike new approach to politics, evidence that Sunak changes his mind when the facts change.  

Sunak is right that too often the fear of a ‘u-turn’ or broken manifesto commitment can see government’s throw good money after bad, particularly if a situation changes. Government should review projects and policies when costs spiral or outcomes falter. But the prime minister applied a different standard to policy changes made by Keir Starmer – presenting those as a sign of untrustworthiness. Starmer’s position has changed on the EU relationship since he was shadow Brexit secretary in 2019. Sunak’s position on HS2 has changed since his Treasury agreed to proceed with the project, also in 2019, following a review that set out the initial spiralling of costs. Surely Sunak’s proposed new politics should be available to all politicians?  

Sunak characterised his policies as long-term  

Another aspect of Sunak’s narrative was that his government will take a long-term approach to policy making. His move on preventative health – raising the smoking age to its eventual extinction – is a brave one, carrying political risk in the form of a free-vote in parliament. If successful, it will certainly be recognised as one of the most significant, long-term public health decisions of recent years.  

Sunak’s most awaited announcement of the day, though, was the cancellation of the Manchester to Birmingham leg of HS2 and a promise to reinvest the savings in other transport projects. Whether this decision really represents “long term thinking” or is motivated by a desire for extra space against his fiscal targets may be revealed in the autumn statement. If that space created is used to fund tax cuts – leaving the promised transport projects to be funded on the never never – the prime minister’s claim of a shift to long-term strategic decision making will be blown out of the water. 

Voters will have to wait to find out whether Sunak delivers on his ‘change’ mantra 

Until today, Sunak’s priorities were all short term. They were all pledges he could be judged on by the time of the next election. Had inflation halved? Had the economy grown and debt been reduced? Had waiting lists fallen? Had the small boats stopped? Many of his announcements at conference were aimed at sketching out the future beyond the next election. The smoking ban might be law by the time the country goes to the polls (although it wouldn’t kick in until 2027), but students next summer will still be sitting A-Levels. And while a few pot-holes might be filled in, by the time we hit the next election voters are likely to view ‘Network North’ in the same way they’ve been viewing HS2 for the past decade – a promise from a party in Westminster that may or not materialise.  

The Conservative Party conference, and Sunak’s speech, was our first insight into the platform he plans to run on into the next election. Sunak is asking voters to believe that he’s different: not only to Starmer but also to his predecessors Truss, Johnson, May and Cameron (three of whom have – conveniently for him – already stepped forward to criticise his speech). Labour strategists may not be unduly worried by the idea of Starmer facing a self-styled ‘change’ candidate from the party of government, but Sunak’s policy shifts, not least on HS2 and net zero, have given them a headache to solve in Liverpool next week

Political party
Prime minister
Sunak government
Public figures
Rishi Sunak
Institute for Government

Related content

22 AUG 2022 Insight paper

The exam question

The education system in England should move to a model of incremental improvement rather than periods of stasis followed by highly disruptive change.