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Rishi Sunak’s dearth of vision

His tepid criticisms of green and gender dogma cannot redeem this listless technocrat.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

Topics Politics UK

Has prime minister Rishi Sunak finally started to find his mojo? Sections of the right-leaning press certainly seem to hope so, after Sunak made a couple of relatively populist policy announcements in the past few weeks. First, he slightly watered down the UK’s Net Zero targets. Then, last weekend, he promised to ‘slam the brakes on the war on motorists’. These were two welcome moves that angered our green elites, but pleased a solid portion of put-upon voters. Some polls have even shown a slight uptick in support for the Tories.

Sunak’s party-conference speech today, his first as Tory leader, was clearly designed to reinforce the impression that, at long last, the PM has discovered his voice, which seems to be a mix of his usual bank-manager persona but with a few more populist notes thrown in. Sunak began by claiming that, for 30 years, Britain has been ruled by the same, tired old status quo. Westminster, Holyrood and the Senedd are part of a ‘broken system’, he continued, in which politicians promise to do things while ‘nothing changes’. He pledged to ‘fundamentally transform this country’. ‘It is time for a change and we are it’, he told the party faithful gathered in Manchester.

Elsewhere in the speech, Sunak returned to two issues on which he is firmly on the right side of public opinion: namely, extreme greenism and gender ideology. He claimed that the financial burdens of Net Zero would fall on the ‘poorest in society’. And he received his biggest cheer for having a pop at transgenderism. ‘We shouldn’t get bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be – they can’t’, he said. ‘A man is a man, and a woman is a woman – that’s just common sense.’

Sunak tried to frame his speech in quasi-populist terms, effectively presenting himself and his government as a challenge to the status quo. It’s a tough sell, given he is now railing against policies that his immediate predecessors as Tory leader imposed, often with his support in cabinet. What’s more, the substance of what he was saying today betrayed the listless technocrat he really is. It wasn’t transformational. It was visionless.

After all, the headline policy announcement, the statement of Sunak’s radical intent, was… his decision to scrap the northern leg of HS2. He made this decision, he told the conference hall, because it wasn’t good value for money. Hardly stirring stuff, is it? Abandoning plans for a high-speed rail link because you think the money would be better spent elsewhere, and making this the centrepiece of your first party-conference speech as PM, is not a sign of a change-maker. It’s a sign of a beancounter.

Another of his signal policy announcements was just as uninspiring – and outrageously illiberal, to boot. This was his pledge to ease the burden on the NHS by tackling ‘preventable disease and death’. This focussed on his plan to ‘stop teenagers taking up smoking in the first place’ by raising the age at which it’s legal to buy cigarettes by one year, every year from now on, until no one can. So, a 14-year-old today will never legally be able to buy a cigarette. He’s taken the illiberal lifestyle regulation of New Labour to its logical, prohibitionist conclusion.

And then there was his big education announcement – a new qualification called the ‘Advanced British Standard’, which he said would combine academic A-levels with more technical T-levels into a ‘new, single qualification for our school leavers’. There may well be merits to this. But a new educational qualification doesn’t amount to a radical challenge to the status quo.

Beyond that there was thin gruel. His economic vision consists of a promise to reduce inflation, which everyone expects to come down anyway. And he didn’t mention anything at all about the serious infrastructural problems we face, from a chronic housing shortage to a deepening energy crisis. Instead, he just wittered on about making decisions in the interests of the ‘long-term’, or the ‘next generation’. Which is often just a technocrat’s code for ‘we know best’ – for removing political decision-making from the arena of democratic debate.

Where was the vision, the substantial ambition? The speech was framed around bringing about meaningful political change. Around giving people greater control over their lives. That, after all, was what motored the Brexit vote. But populism is just a posture for Sunak. And one he cannot pull off at all. His reference in his speech to ‘taking back control’ was just icing on the same old technocratic stodge of a cake.

After all, beyond his rhetorical blasts against gender ideology and green zealotry, what exactly does Sunak leave us with? Smoking bans and a revamped A-level. He offers Blairism without Tony’s creepy charisma – New Labour with the tiniest pinch of gender-critical feminism and eco-scepticism. Indeed, while it is to Sunak’s credit that he has finally clocked that impoverishing ordinary people via green austerity and forcing women to share changing rooms with be-penised men doesn’t make you popular with the electorate, his action even on these issues never matches his rhetoric. He is, at best, tinkering around the edges of these two dreadful, authoritarian dogmas.

Sunak and the Tories do have one big thing going for them, however. Their opponent is Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party – a fact Sunak returned to more than once in his speech. Labour is fully committed to Net Zero, has embraced every species of identity politics, and is desperate to fall back into the EU. As unlikely as it is that Sunak will manage to pull his party out of the electoral hole it has dug for itself, Starmer remains his one great hope – a man so wedded to the failed orthodoxies of our age that he makes anyone look daring by comparison.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

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Topics Politics UK

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