Rishi is going off the rails

High Speed Toryism has not reached Manchester

“He is incapable of standing up and fighting,” Penny Mordaunt said as she warmed up the crowd for Rishi Sunak on the final day of the Conservative conference. “He doesn’t believe in anything. He doesn’t stand for anything. Who is he?”

“Penny! Penny! Penny!” yelled a gang of young men in shiny suits to our right.

We knew Mordaunt was sore about how Sunak stitched up the second of last year’s leadership contests, but even so, this seemed a bit much. It turned out she was talking about Keir Starmer, but I’m sure she’ll forgive our confusion. So much of the rhetoric this week has been devoted to telling us what a terrible mess this country is in. It’s sometimes suggested that the Tories are their own worst enemies, but that’s supposed to be a figure of speech, not the brief for one.

The official theme of Mordaunt’s speech was that the Tories need to get up and fight. Half a millimetre beneath the surface was the subtext: “Guys, if you need a different leader, I’m right here.” Mordaunt had seen Suella Braverman place her hand on the Tory party’s knee on Tuesday and decided to put her own rather higher up the leg. You want big hair? Hers is bigger.

She moved around in front of the lectern to yell at us directly, pointing at us and telling us to fight — as if the Conservatives have ever needed any encouragement on that front. Braverman may have positioned herself as Margaret Thatcher’s heir, but Mordaunt seemed to be suggesting she was the Iron Lady reincarnated. “Penny! Penny! Penny!” yelled a gang of young men in shiny suits to our right. The older gentlemen behind us may have needed a cold shower.

We can only hope India’s production of billionaire daughters is up to meeting this target

Sunak himself was preceded by a video which whizzed through all the things our dynamic prime minister has been up to. It summed up the contradictions that have trapped him: he’s most famous for paying the country to stay at home during the pandemic, but he hates big state interventions. He wants credit from environmentalists for planning to meet climate change targets, but also wants points from the sceptics in his party because he’s slowing that action down.

The film finished, the lights flashed around the auditorium, and there before us on the stage was Akshata Murty, the prime minister’s wife. The spouse introduction has been absent from British politics in recent years. Boris Johnson really missed a trick by not getting one of his mistresses to do the job.

“Let me start with one word that sums up my husband,” Murty began. Rich? No, “aspiration”. He wants everyone in Britain to have the opportunities he’s had. We can only hope India’s production of billionaire daughters is up to meeting this target.

When Sunak himself got onto the stage, it was to attempt a truly ambitious rhetorical stunt. He wanted to rebrand the Conservatives as an insurgent force for change. Any prime minister leading a party that had been in office for 13 years would struggle with that challenge, but with even the Tories now admitting that their recent record in office has been a horror show, it was a particular challenge for Sunak. So it’s hardly surprising that he didn’t meet it.

“I will tell it as it is,” he said, and then added, in the next breath, “I don’t want to waste time debating the past.” This is not how truth-telling works.

The main announcement of the speech, the cancelling of HS2, suffered somewhat from having been comprehensively leaked beforehand, but went down well in the room. It was followed by a vast list of things that will be paid for instead. You may not have been aware that spending on high speed rail was the reason the roads are full of potholes, but Sunak explained that now we’re not having trains, we can have tarmac.

“In place of one delayed and over-running project will now begin hundreds upon hundreds of new projects,” he said. None of these will be delayed or over-run, of course.

In a way, this bit of the speech was the closest to the prime minister’s actual self-image: the hard-faced hedge fund guy who looks over the numbers and cancels a failing project to fund better alternatives. Politics is a little more complicated than that, of course. “I challenge anyone to tell me with a straight face that all of that isn’t what the north really needs,” he said after reeling off a list of rail projects. But his next words, a plea to Birmingham Mayor Andy Street to accept it, suggests that people have already been telling him exactly this with extremely straight faces.

The next election is going to feature more discussion of female anatomy than a Year 8 Biology class

There was a hodge-podge of other second-order policy announcements. The age at which you can buy cigarettes will rise by a year every year, meaning a packet of Rothman’s remains for ever tantalising out of reach of today’s teens. Will supermarkets really demand smokers prove they’re 36, not 35? But we can’t argue with the desire to keep children’s lungs free of noxious tobacco smoke, so that they’re better able to suck in the health-giving exhaust fumes Sunak is so keen our cars should keep pumping out.

There was the obligatory line on trans issues. “A man is a man and a woman is a woman,” Sunak said, and got the biggest cheer of the speech. The next election is going to feature more discussion of female anatomy than a Year 8 Biology class. Doubtless it will all be thoughtfully worded.

His delivery was perfectly OK. There was none of the brash bombast of Boris Johnson, or the wild-eyed enemies-of-the-state stuff of Liz Truss. But he did fine. The problem was the content. “Our mission is to fundamentally change our country,” Sunak said, but he isn’t a plucky rebel who’s broken in from the outside. He’s the product of Winchester, Oxford, Goldman Sachs and Stanford, who owes his position to connections and political stitch-ups. The only competitive election he ever fought, he lost.

Is the country in a mess, as he and the Cabinet agree? Then he needed to explain how it had got there. Instead he attacked Labour for having offered a manifestly unsuitable man as a potential prime minister in 2019. As an attack line, this continues to have a huge shaggy blond flaw.

Does the nation face big long-term problems? Certainly. But why focus on reforming A Levels, rather than, say, building houses? Four years ago Johnson became prime minister — with Sunak’s support — telling us he already had a plan to fix the social care crisis. We’ve heard not a word about it since. Does Sunak have a copy? Does he have his own version?

“He just says whatever he thinks will benefit him the most. It doesn’t matter whether he can deliver it, doesn’t matter if it’s true, it doesn’t matter if he said the opposite just a few weeks or months ago. He is the walking definition of the thirty-year political status quo.” Sunak was talking about Starmer again. I’m pretty sure he was, anyway.

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