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UK PM Rishi Sunak scraps major high-speed rail link; plans to phase out smoking

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak used his headline speech at the close of the conference to reassert his authority and outline a number of new policies.

Bloomberg | Getty Images

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND — U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday unveiled a raft of new policies aimed at shoring up waning support for his Conservative Party ahead of next year’s General Election.

Included in the measures was the anticipated but controversial decision to scrap the northern leg of a planned HS2 high-speed rail network intended to connect industry across the country.

Sunak used the decision to position himself as the change candidate, saying that he would “fundamentally change” the country.

“HS2 is the ultimate example of the old consensus: The result of a project whose costs have more than doubled, for which the economic case has been massively weakened with the changes to travel post-Covid,” he said, delivering his headline speech at the close of the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, England.

“The facts have changed. The right thing to do when the facts change is to have the courage to change direction,” he said.

Other moves to crackdown on smoking, curb illegal immigration and reform the education system were also announced.

High-speed business link scrapped

Sunak confirmed speculation that the government would ax the HS2 high-speed train route between Birmingham and Manchester amid mounting costs, saying that money from the project — around £36 billion — would be reinvested in other regional transport links.

HS2 was given a budget of £55.7 billion in 2015 but costs have since ballooned, hitting an estimated £98 billion in 2020. Since then, soaring inflation has pushed costs even higher.

“For the first time in the lifetime of this project, we will have cut costs,” Sunak said. “There is nothing ambitious about simply pouring more and more money into the same project.”

“For too long, Westminster has invested in the projects they want, not the projects the rest of the country want and need,” he added, unveiling plans for an alternative “Network North” transport investment for local lines.

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Critics on both sides of the political spectrum have accused the prime minister of stifling the countries’ long-term prospects in the interests of short-term political gain.

West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, who has played a pivotal role in boosting the Conservatives’ position in the region, said Sunak was “canceling the future” and has reportedly considered quitting over the decision.

Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, told the BBC Sunak was treating the north like “second-class citizens.” Building of the London to Birmingham leg of the route is already underway.

The move also marks a blow to investors with exposure to the infrastructure project, including construction firm Kier Group, which last month bought a company that held HS2 and other rail contracts.

Elsewhere, Sunak announced a plan to raise the smoking age by one year every year, while also restricting the availability of vapes to children.

“As Conservatives, measures that restrict choice are never easy,” he said, while insisting that the move would reduce the biggest cause of preventable death.

The plans, if passed, will likely hit the sales of cigarette companies, including Japan Tobacco and Imperial Brands, which both count the U.K. as a major market.

Sunak also unveiled an overhaul of A-levels and T-levels, studied by 16-to 19-year-olds, under a new so-called Advanced British Standard. The moves will expand the number of hours students spend in classrooms and increase the number of subjects they study to include compulsory English and math.

Sunak described education reform as essential to reducing inequality and improving livelihoods, describing it as “the best economic policy, the best social policy, the best moral policy.”

Sunak seeks to shore up support

The measures come as the ruling Conservatives, 13 years in power, trail opposition Labour Party by 20 points in the polls, raising the risks of a potentially agonizing defeat at next year’s General Election.

Sunak had intended to use the conference to strengthen support among party members and the electorate at large ahead of next year’s General Election, unveiling a new campaign slogan: “Long-term decisions for a brighter future.”

Indeed, in his speech he attempted to position himself as the change candidate, saying “politics just doesn’t work the way it should,” adding “I will lead in a different way.”

However, rising discord from radical factions within his Tory party has dominated the event, serving a major blow to his leadership.

Meantime, opinion polls suggest that the public think Sunak is failing to deliver on his five key priorities: to halve inflation; grow the economy; lower public debt; reduce NHS waiting lists; and stop small migrant boats from reaching the country.

According to an IPSOS poll released Wednesday, almost three-quarters (71%) think Sunak is doing a bad job of reducing NHS waiting lists, while nearly two-thirds (63%) think he is failing to ease the cost of living amid still high inflation.

“You either think this country needs to change or you don’t,” Sunak said in an apparent nod to the current public sentiment.

“If you do, you should stand with me and everyone in this hall. You should stand with the Conservatives. It is time for a change and this is it,” he added. 

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