MANCHESTER – Battling gloomy opinion polls and mounting doubts, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday promised skeptical voters, and his own Conservative Party, that he would make tough choices to “fundamentally change our country.”
Two of his boldest plans in a speech to the party’s annual conference — canceling a railway project that has already cost billions and proposing to ban smoking for the next generation — definitely caused ripples. Whether they translate into success for the right-of-center party in an election next year is another question. Opinion polls in recent weeks have put the left-of-center opposition Labour Party 15 to 20 points ahead.
Sunak told hundreds of party members packed into a Manchester conference hall that he’s not afraid to make big decisions that will deliver “long-term success” rather than “short-term advantage.”
He said proof was his decision to curtail the embattled High Speed 2 project — an overdue, overbudget high-speed railway line that was planned to link London and Manchester, 160 miles (260 kilometers) to the northwest.
“The economic case has massively been weakened by the changes to business travel post-COVID,” Sunak said, arguing it would be an “abdication of leadership” to continue.
Once billed as Europe’s largest infrastructure project, HS2 was meant to slash journey times and increase capacity between London, the central England city of Birmingham and the northern cities of Manchester and Leeds with 250 mph (400 kph) state-of-the-art trains.
Its cost was estimated at 33 billion pounds in 2011, but has soared to more than 100 billion pounds ($122 billion) by some estimates. The Manchester-Leeds leg was lopped off by the Conservative government in 2021, and the high-speed line will now end at Birmingham.
Sunak said that would free 36 billion pounds ($44 billion) for new road and rail projects across the Midlands and North, regions that are less affluent and less well-connected than southern England.
Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, a member of the opposition Labour Party, said the decision sent the message that “we can’t do big and difficult things anymore, and I don’t think it reflects well on Britain.”
“It’s so frustrating,” he said.
Business groups also lamented the announcement. Rain Newton-Smith, chief executive of the Confederation of British Industry, said it “sends a damaging signal about the U.K.’s status as global destination for investment.”
Sunak is trying to persuade the voting public that a party in power for 13 years deserves another term in office. He’s banking on a set of populist measures, such as slowing moves to phase out fossil fuels, designed to win back voters who have rejected the Conservatives over Britain’s stagnating economy, cost-of-living crisis and waves of strikes — including one Wednesday by train drivers that upended some conference participants’ travel plans.
Along with commitments to train more doctors and overhaul secondary education, Sunak said he wanted to introduce a gradual ban on smoking, by raising the legal age to buy cigarettes “by one year, every year.”
“That means a 14 year old today will never legally be sold a cigarette and that they and their generation can grow up smoke free,” he said.
Health groups welcomed the idea, pioneered by New Zealand. But it struck some Conservatives as an example of the “nanny state” derided by free-market former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — a Conservative icon and Sunak’s political idol. Shares in tobacco firms British American Tobacco and Imperial Brands fell on the London Stock Exchange after the announcement.
Sunak said Conservative lawmakers would be given a free vote in Parliament on the smoking ban.
Sunak, a former investment banker and U.K. Treasury chief, took office just under a year ago after predecessor Liz Truss alarmed financial markets and roiled the economy with a plan for unfunded tax cuts. She lasted just 49 days in power.
He used the speech to give party members and voters a glimpse of the man behind his technocratic exterior. He was introduced by his wife, Akshata Murty, who told the audience “he’s fun, he’s thoughtful, he’s compassionate and he has an incredible zest for life.”
The speech was an upbeat end to a subdued four-day conference.
“There’s no oomph,” lamented one delegate, as many in the party contemplate the possibility of losing power.
Sunak’s rivals are already jostling for position on a party leadership contest that could follow election defeat. Home Secretary Suella Braverman used her conference speech to appeal to the party’s authoritarian, law-and-order wing, advocating tougher curbs on migration and a war on human rights protections and “woke” social values.
Sunak repeated his pledge to “stop the boats” of migrants trying to reach Britain across the English Channel, which involves a contentious plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda that is being challenged in the courts.
He distanced himself from Braverman’s assertion that “multiculturalism has failed,” calling the United Kingdom “the most successful multiethnic democracy on Earth.”
“I’m proud to be the first British Asian prime minister,” Sunak said. “But you know what? I’m even prouder that it’s just not a big deal.”
Some delegates said they felt calmed, if not exhilarated, by Sunak’s speech.
“I am confident we can win,” said Balwinder Dhillon, deputy mayor of the town of Slough, west of London. “He’s the most efficient person in the country.”