Rishi Sunak made eye-catching announcements on a raft of different policy areas in his first conference speech as Conservative party leader, but sought to weave them together under a common theme: change.
In his keynote address on Wednesday, the UK prime minister cancelled the northern leg of HS2 and redirected the £36bn of savings into other rail and road initiatives, unveiled an overhaul of A-levels, and outlined a smoking ban on future generations.
His overarching message was that these shake-ups in transport, education and public health illustrated his willingness to pivot from agreed courses of action and embodied the Tories’ new slogan — “long-term decisions for a brighter future”.
In a 65-minute speech to the party faithful, Sunak made 30 references to “change” as he built towards his conclusion: “It is time for a change — and we are it.”
The 43-year-old claimed that he represented a break not just with the previous 13 years of Tory government, but also a failed “30-year-old political status quo” encompassing virtually all of the post-Thatcher era.
Conservative strategists suggest that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who has just turned 60 and is 15-20 points ahead in opinion polls, does not represent such a generational change. It is a bold strategy for a prime minister leading a party that has been in power for 17 of the past 30 years.
But Sunak is seen by Conservative strategists as the party’s best hope for the general election expected next year — the relatively fresh-faced leader who will be at the centre of a “presidential” campaign, flanked by youthful allies including energy secretary Claire Coutinho, pensions minister Laura Trott and veterans’ affairs minister Johnny Mercer.
The surprise move by Sunak’s wife Akshata Murty to introduce him on stage on Wednesday also prompted speculation about the role she may play in the election campaign.
Allies of the prime minister say his decision to water down net zero policies this month and his performance at conference has answered backbench MPs’ clamour for a fresh approach to address the poll lead Labour has held since he took office last October.
They also suggest his conference speech is a warm-up act for a barrage of further radical announcements in coming months that will underscore his pitch as the pioneer of change.
Some ministers think it is a risky approach following the turmoil of the past 18 months, however, particularly in contrast to the strategy of the main opposition party. “Labour being boring is a plus for them — they are offering stability,” said one.
Other Tory figures believe it is simply too late to implement major new policies or shift the narrative ahead of the next election. One Tory grandee branded the leadership “delusional” to “act as though everything will be all right” given the time left before voters head to polling stations.
Meanwhile, some MPs are sceptical about whether Sunak’s political positioning as the candidate of change is underscored by sufficient substance. One former minister said of his speech: “There wasn’t enough narrative about where the party is going towards the election, apart from repeatedly saying: ‘We’re the forces of change’.”
Another Tory MP accused the prime minister of a mis-step in rubbishing the Conservatives’ record since 2010, warning that it would antagonise MPs and party grandees who played key roles in the governments of Liz Truss, Boris Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron.
“He referred to the past too much,” the MP said. “Instead of trashing previous administrations, he could have said, ‘I’ve only been in office for one year, this is what I’d do with a first full five-year term in office’. I was surprised by the way he framed it.”
Number 10 was determined to spotlight Sunak during the four-day conference, with few other major announcements from other cabinet ministers.
But the decision to hold back the bulk of policy interventions for the prime minister’s grand finale meant that the early part of conference was dominated by the party’s increasingly radical rightwing, which hosted co-ordinated rallies.
The prominence of conspiracy theories among this flank — including supposed plans among a shady elite to forge a “world government”, plus the crank “15-minute cities” thesis about the placement of amenities near residential neighbourhoods — has triggered alarm among One Nation Tory MPs.
Combined with hardline rhetoric on migration and trans issues from Cabinet ministers behind the podium this week, several centrist MPs departed the conference in a state of despair.
“This loony stuff — I hate it,” said one. “What’s more, it’s going to turn off floating voters, soft Tories. We need to focus on GP appointments, housing, the cost of living, not conspiracy theories and attacking migrants.”
Others called on Sunak to rein in home secretary Suella Braverman, who on Tuesday said that a “hurricane” of migrants was threatening to enter the UK.
In his speech, Sunak issued a veiled riposte to Braverman’s claim last week that multiculturalism had failed, describing Britain as “the most successful multi-ethnic democracy on Earth”.
“I am proud to be the first British-Asian prime minister, but you know what? I am even prouder that it is just not a big deal,” he added.
Sunak finished his speech to a standing ovation from activists, but left Manchester facing an uphill battle to unite his fractious parliamentary party.
It is not a trivial task: Tory strategists warn that alongside convincing the public that their boss is the leading agent of change, any election win will depend on presenting a united party front. “We need the herd to pull together,” said one. “We need unity of purpose and discipline.”