Rishi Sunak’s questionable new radicalism

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Rishi Sunak was hailed a year ago as someone who would bring managerial competence to the role of UK prime minister after years of turbulence. Since that approach has failed to excite voters with a general election looming, he is trying to reinvent himself. This is now a leader who claims to be ready to take “radical” decisions and champion common sense over misguided consensus, and to deliver real change in a way that seven previous premiers over 30 years — five from his own Conservative party — supposedly failed to do.

Alongside the heavily-leaked centrepiece of his conference speech — scrapping the northern portion of the high-speed rail line that is Britain’s biggest infrastructure project since the war — it is possible the slightly odd grab-bag of policies he unveiled will shore up some of the Conservative party base. Some ideas — a crackdown on smoking, a broader school-leaving qualification — are worthwhile as far as they go. Yet even together with the “pragmatic” watering down of climate policies that Sunak already announced, they do not amount to a coherent programme to address the major challenges the country faces, long-term and short.

Some in northern England, the Midlands and beyond may welcome cancellation of the heavily over-budget Birmingham-Manchester leg of HS2. There is a superficial allure to the promise of spending £36bn instead on “hundreds” of rail, road and bus schemes, including strengthening east-west connections in what the government has dubbed “Network North”. Yet much of HS2’s point was to ease the burden on existing rail lines and roads — by taking cars and, above all, lorries off them — so they could be more efficiently utilised.

Years of preparatory planning for the Manchester-Birmingham leg are now squandered; multiple, lengthy new processes must start up. It is far from clear, too, that the government and construction industry will be better able to manage hundreds of smaller, concurrent projects than they were one big one. Better regional networks may eventually make life easier for some voters. But they cannot fully compensate for the lost vision, and potential to drive investment, of a more integrated economy tied together by fast, interconnected north-south and east-west links.

What of the rest of Sunak’s outline programme? Progressively raising the smoking age so today’s youth never start has the potential to improve health and reduce pressure, in time, on the NHS. But it will not ease the strain on today’s chronically overburdened system, and record waiting lists. Reforming post-16 education to create a broader “Advanced British Standard” is an admirable goal, though there were few clues about how the government would recruit the extra staff required to teach more subjects and hours.

Many of Sunak’s ministers, meanwhile, seemed more interested in preening for a prospective leadership contest after an electoral rout next year — above all home secretary Suella Braverman with a dog-whistle speech warning of a “hurricane” of migration. The impression is of a party veering towards rightwing populism and “anti-woke” culture wars, rather than providing credible answers to the fundamental issues facing the UK today. These are how to accelerate investment, raise productivity and take advantage of the climate transition to boost lacklustre growth.

Only by doing this can Britain, over time, ease a tax burden that is at a postwar high while starting to rebuild public services. After 13 years in power, the Conservatives seem desperate to find ways of clinging on for another five-year term. The new, radically pragmatic Sunak has yet to make a convincing case for what they would do with it.

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