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So the “real Rishi” turns out to be more like the abominable no-man. The main feature of the prime minister’s strategic reset is ditching Conservative promises he now considers to be undeliverable.
From watering down net zero targets to scrapping or delaying the key parts of the HS2 high-speed rail line that was meant to connect England’s great cities, Sunak’s strategy appears to be admitting that the approach to government his party has taken for over a decade is no way to run a country.
For Sunak is defining himself not only against a Labour opposition with grand green visions, but against all his Conservative predecessors — Boris Johnson, David Cameron, George Osborne, Liz Truss and Theresa May. These are the guilty people who signed off flawed projects and committed the UK to climate change goals without any real notion of how they might be delivered. Long-repeated promises to “fix” social care also appear to have fallen down the back of a Downing Street sofa.
The Conservatives have found repeated electoral success in reinvention, offering a new face to convince voters they need look no further for change. But Sunak’s plan for repeating the trick relies on rubbishing much of the past 13 years.
And he has a point. The net zero targets were being rendered meaningless by the failure to build the infrastructure that would enable them. An electric vehicle charging network is nowhere near ready and, more importantly, the national grid lacks the capacity for electrification of the economy.
There is no easy decision on HS2. All outcomes are bad. It is grotesquely over budget and the initial specifications smacked of vanity. Did it need to be quite so fast? Extra tunnelling to pacify rural objectors ratcheted up costs. The eastern leg from Birmingham to Leeds has already been abandoned; now the western side looks to be for the chop. The separate, previously shelved, rapid route between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds may be resurrected but a high-speed link connecting the northern cities to each other and London is decades away at best.
One can quarrel with Sunak’s judgments — and certainly be cynical about his motivation when it comes to the green agenda — but there is a welcome vein of sense running through the tough questions he is asking. The political message he hopes to convey is that after great trial and vast error the UK has found the practical premier it needs.
Yet Sunak’s signal may not be what he desires. HS2 and net zero may be the most high-profile problems. But this is also the country that cannot get close to its targets for new homes, is way behind in building much-needed new nuclear reactors and is undermining its ambitions as a science powerhouse by failing to deliver the extra laboratory capacity needed in the Oxford-Cambridge arc.
Add the long-running rail and health strikes and the image is of a country reeling from years of under-investment in which nothing functions as it should.
Investors are understandably alarmed at lurches on net zero while businesses that bought into stories of northern revival will be shaken by reports of backtracking on HS2. Sunak, meanwhile, exudes a visceral aversion to industrial strategy, which means government interventions such as subsidies to Jaguar Land Rover or Tata Steel are piecemeal. And that’s before we even mention Brexit.
The danger for Sunak is that what he regards as controlled decluttering looks chaotic to others. The serious scrutiny he conducts is an indictment of a Conservative Britain unable to deliver key infrastructure projects or build for its own future. As for political nous; allowing the cancellation of the Manchester leg of HS2 into public discourse just days before his annual party conference in, erm, Manchester was hardly a triumph of media management.
While Sunak can kill or delay projects, the question is why voters should believe he will be any more successful in delivering alternatives after so many empty pledges. The issues may largely predate him but the Conservative party is part of the problem. The personality of the prime minister matters but if Nimby MPs block the planning reform necessary to build more homes or drive through major infrastructure, ambitions will not be met. Treasury orthodoxy has also been an obstacle to speed on energy projects. Sunak’s management may be superior but his own instincts are for spending cuts and capital projects are always the first victims.
On net zero, Sunak has rightly addressed the need to raise grid capacity and prioritised connection for the most important energy projects. But many in his ranks see retreat from some targets as just the first dilution of goals in which they do not believe.
The tragedy for Sunak is that in trying to get a grip on commitments where the rhetoric has far outrun reality, he may be both right and too late. For he is also highlighting years of failure. The politics of separating himself from his predecessors is sound but since there is a more obvious avenue for voters who have tired of Tory rule, Sunak is betting that his financial controller’s approach persuades voters he can do better.
If not, his contribution may be to have injected some overdue realism and control into the UK’s great projects, sweeping away unrealistic commitments for his successor. He would deserve the nation’s thanks but the failures he is illuminating in what has gone before means he should not count on receiving them.