Rishi Sunak rejected criticism that recent shifts mean the UK cannot be taken seriously, as he struggled to maintain order ahead of a Conservative conference set to be dominated by questions about tax cuts and rivals vying to succeed him.
In the traditional television interview leading up to the conference, the Prime Minister again refused to say whether the HS2 system would be extended to Manchester, the host city of the conference, which begins on Sunday afternoon.
Asked on BBC One’s Sunday program with Laura Kuenssberg, Sunak said he was comfortable about taking office without an election and then dropping large parts of the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto, saying he instinctively understood what the public wanted.
“I have a good idea of the priorities of the British people,” he said. “I will start serving them. This is the change I will bring.”
Shortly before Sunak spoke, Michael Gove, the settlement minister, highlighted the extent to which government ministers were working independently on policy ahead of the conference, calling for tax cuts before the election.
Likewise, in press interviews, Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, and Suella Braverman, the home secretary, promoted the right-wing Tories to succeed Sunak after the election, by calling on the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.
In an at times combative interview, Sunak sought to present himself as a revitalized prime minister with a plan for change, following the recent policy shift on net zero targets and the expected shift in HS2.
Asked whether uncertainty over HS2 risked the UK being seen as a “laughing stock”, Sunak replied: “I would absolutely reject that. I speak to business leaders all the time. I’ve just been all over the world. I’ve recently been to Japan and America.” And Europe. We attract billions of pounds of investment to this country, and we create jobs everywhere.
“This is what I hear from business leaders around the world. They are excited about the opportunity that investing in Britain provides.”
However, Sunak again refused to say whether HS2 would head to Manchester, as planned, or stop in Birmingham.
“There are already shovels on the ground with HS2, and we are continuing to deliver them,” he said. When he was told that was not the question, he added: “I will not comment on all this speculation.”
Kuenssberg played a clip of Sunak to Richard Walker, chief executive of retailer Iceland, who said Sunak’s government was “drifting away from the environmental needs of business, as well as the ordinary people my business touches and serves”.
Sunak – who appeared to argue that Walker may be partly disgruntled because he failed to be chosen as a potential Tory MP – said: “Change can be uncomfortable for people. People may criticize me, but I think I’m doing the right thing for the country.”
With the conference likely to be the last Tory gathering before the election, Sunak will face significant pressure to agree to the tax cuts, as Gove made clear in his interview.
“I would like to see the tax burden reduced before the next election,” Gove told Sky Sunday with Trevor Phillips. “My own view is that we should, wherever possible, cut taxes on work. In other words, we should incentivize people to work harder, and we should make sure they get better rewards for the enterprise, effort and endeavor they put in.”
Asked about this, Sunak only said: “The best tax cut we can offer working people is to halve inflation.”
Pressed on the easing of green targets, and his decision to prioritize the needs of drivers over bus users, pedestrians and cyclists, Sunak insisted this was not a “knee-jerk reaction to the Uxbridge by-election” in July, where the Conservatives unexpectedly won by Campaign against expanded clean air zones in London.
However, he hinted that moves to restrict councils’ ability to enforce 20mph zones and other road safety measures may ultimately be somewhat limited.
Asked how this would work, he said it was about “making sure that the legal guidance that goes to local councils from government is clear about making sure that councils, who are clearly responsible for what happens in their local areas, do things with the support and approval of their local community”.
“Infuriatingly humble alcohol fanatic. Unapologetic beer practitioner. Analyst.”