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The only change Rishi Sunak will bring about is a change of government

This strange, stale conference speech by a man of no vision won’t revive the Tories

Rishi Sunak speaks during the final day of the Conservative Party Conference (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

So it’s Rishi the rebel, is it? Rishi the change-maker, the radical, the disruptor of consensus? Well: anyone who has seen a Transformers movie knows that they are robots in disguise. And this robot’s disguise shouldn’t fool anyone.

As the prime minister delivered his first and possibly last conference speech as Conservative leader, I lost track of the number of times he used the word “change” or offered variations on that theme. “I will lead in a different way,” he promised. “People are right,” he said. “Politics doesn’t work the way it should.”

In response, he declared that he would offer “fundamental change”, and would lead a government that was “bold” and “radical”. Again and again, as if channelling Sam Cooke, he insisted that a change is gonna come, right up to his peroration: “It is time for a change – and we are it”.

The somewhat baffling premise of the speech was that it all went wrong 30 years ago; that we had all suffered three decades of “a political system which incentivises the easy decision, not the right one. Thirty years of vested interests standing in the way of change.”

One wonders what, exactly, happened to Sunak in 1993, the year in which he first went, aged 13, to Winchester College. What trauma, what outrage, what fundamental misunderstanding of early Britpop?

Since that apparently terrible year, there have been eight prime ministers, of whom six (including him) have been Conservatives. What exactly was he saying? That it was all misguided, unsatisfactory, and inadequate, this Tory-dominated era? And if so, why did he think that the voters would buy his insistent depiction of himself as the man to change it all? To move fast and break things?

What, in the end, was fresh in all the rhetoric? We already knew that he is ready to do “whatever is necessary to stop the boats” (code for leaving the European Convention on Human Rights – if all else fails). We knew that he wants to replace A levels and T levels with a British baccalaureate, now renamed the “Advanced British Standard”. Even his promise of a £30,000 bonus over five years to new teachers in key subjects looks suspiciously like a policy first unveiled in 2015.

It was hardly surprising to hear a Tory leader bash health workers, or menace welfare claimants with more stringent tests of their ability to hold down a job. Whole-life sentences for sexual and sadistic murderers are hard to argue against, but scarcely a new direction for the self-styled party of law and order.

Again, Sunak’s announcement that (depending upon a free vote in the Commons) the legal smoking age will be increased by one year annually is consistent with sensible preventative medicine. But – on its own – it sounded quixotic, eccentric, a buzzing bee in the prime ministerial bonnet. If you were a parent dependent upon food banks, or fretful about fuel bills as winter approaches, you might feel that this was the hobby horse of a multi-millionaire prig with no sense of priorities, or grip on reality.

The centrepiece of his speech, of course, was the much-trailed announcement that HS2 will not now stretch to Manchester (the city hosting this conference, no less) and that £36 billion will be spent on other transport projects in the north.

Perhaps some will believe that figure. Personally, I was sharply reminded of a big red bus and the promise of £350 million a week extra for the NHS. Sunak sold the reallocation of this sum as a new chapter for the north. I smelt the distinctive stench of bus-onomics. The furious warning of Andy Street, Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, that Sunak is “cancelling the future” sounded more authentic.

Worse, one had to wonder why the PM had allowed this decision to overshadow so thoroughly what is all but certain to be the Conservatives’ last conference before the general election. His tetchy insistence until today that he would not be rushed into a “premature decision” merely underlined the embarrassing fact that, for all his youthful success, he is not a very good politician.

Which is the heart of the matter. In no shape or form – and in spite of his wife Akshata’s gracious introduction – can Sunak be said to have stamped his authority upon this gathering.

Its forces were centrifugal. It was a carnival of disaggregation. The exam question it posed was not really “how are we going to win?” but “who takes over after we lose?” Its stars were Suella Braverman (hardcore right), Kemi Badenoch (right wing, but not truly deranged), Penny Mordaunt (relaunched by her role in the coronation) and, unbelievably, Liz Truss, who behaved as if, like Margaret Thatcher, she had been prime minister for 11 defining years rather than 49 disastrous days. And, also unbelievably, they loved her for it.

Lurking in every corridor was the Dark Lord himself, Nigel Farage, who has become less of an exile than a revered populist guru for many Tories. So powerful has the former Brexit Party leader grown that Sunak was forced to signal that he would be welcomed back into the Tory fold – an offer that Farage was (naturally) delighted to decline.

It is hard, furthermore, to make your slogan “Long-Term Decisions for a Brighter Future” when the party you lead clocked up three prime ministers and four chancellors last year; when you yourself have recently postponed key net zero targets in a desperate quest for a quick electoral fix; when you are taking an axe to the nation’s most significant infrastructure project, but declaring yourself firmly opposed to potholes.

The PM is right about one thing: to a dangerous extent, people do not trust politics or politicians. But why is that? Because of Partygate (subject of a superb and chilling Channel 4 docu-drama this week), as a result of which he himself was given a fixed penalty notice. Because of the great trust-buster Boris Johnson, whose leadership bid he so strongly supported in 2019. And (perhaps above all) because of the lies of Brexit, which he continues to peddle to this day. Sunak is as complicit as anyone in the rot he correctly identifies.

Shall we be grown-ups about this? Vote for a change – by giving the Conservatives a fifth term: it’s a bit of a stretch, isn’t it? And what could possibly persuade a rational person that this techno-Pooter personifies the transformation that this country undoubtedly needs. Politics has few reliable rules, but one of them is that a man who owns a Bluetooth-enabled mug is not going to lead a revolution.

The T-shirt slogan “Be the change” is often misattributed to Gandhi. What he actually said is more interesting: “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”

Exactly so. Sunak hasn’t changed his nature at all. Which is why the attitude of the world towards him isn’t going to change, either.

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