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London Playbook PM: Long-term decisions, short-term politics

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Good afternoon from the National Express coach stop in Manchester, after the Conservative conference packed up.


Rishi Sunak is heading back to London after delivering his big Conservative conference speech.

The PM scrapped the HS2 Manchester line but announced other transport projects in its place.

He also vowed to ban smoking outright and reform post 16 education.

Ministers are pleased but David Cameron isn’t.

Lee Anderson doubled down on his Donald Trump impression after Conservative conference went a bit MAGA.

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ROAD AFTER RAIL: Rishi Sunak is in the car back to Downing Street after plunging a sleeper-sized stake into the HS2 rail project during what could well be his final Conservative conference speech before the next election.

Dead rabbits: The three big policies unveiled in his hour long address would have been interesting rabbits if it weren’t for the multiple leaks over recent weeks. They include a ban on cigarette purchases for kids and reforming college education — although extra details on those and the rail plan have emerged. More on the policies below.

Still live rabbit: The one big surprise the Tories managed to keep under wraps was that Sunak’s wife Akshata Murthy was lined up to introduce him onstage. She spoke with gushing praise about her husband and delivered a few gags about his love of hoodies and the like. It means the rom-com loving PM got his own rom-com moment. “Rishi and I are best friends,” she told the assembled activists, who loved it. “We’re one team.”

And then … the crowd went nuts for Sunak when he appeared at noon, despite more than half of them blocking him from the job in the first leadership contest of 2022. The darkened hall was packed despite the rail strikes — full of driver members primed to jeer the war on motorists.

Team Sunak: A cohort of Rishi Youth-esque backers in blue “long-term decisions” T-shirts, some of them wearing black baseball caps, were lined up in the central seating zone. Big banners showing the slogan and the five “immediate” priorities hung high on either side of the air-conditioned chasm.

On stage left: Much of the press was gathered in a standing section, dotted with senior Downing Street aides and allies of the PM such as his bag carrier Craig Williams and unofficial adviser Julian Smith. Rail Minister Huw Merriman looked out from beneath one of the autocue screens as Sunak announced his HS2 changes.

The content: The speech was a collection of crowd favorites about “vested interests,” immigration, attacks on Labour and culture wars — while noting that the Tories have a better record on female and ethnic leaders than the opposition.

I’m the new bloke, honest: Despite the Conservatives being in government for more than a decade and Sunak having served at the highest levels through the Boris Johnson chaos, the PM did the whole “Westminster is terrible but I’m different” thing. “You either think this country needs to change or your don’t,” he said. “It’s time for a change and we are it.”

Which is interesting because … the “time for a change” sentiment is seen in Westminster as the biggest thing going for Keir Starmer, since voters don’t seem too inspired about the opposition leader as an end in himself. “He’s the walking definition of the 30 year political status quo I am here to end,” Sunak said of Starmer.

Of course … Whether the Conservatives = change gambit is credible is another matter. Sunak did admit the recent horrorshow had been “tough” and “we have mountains to overcome still.” That mountain might be best illustrated via the Savanta word cloud released this week.

Best gag: “Nicola Sturgeon wanted to go down in the history books as the woman who broke up our country, but now it looks like she may go down for very different reasons.” It got a big laugh.


INTO THE WEEDS: The speech revolved around Sunak’s three big announcements — designed to paint him as making “long-term decisions for a brighter future,” for those who haven’t been listening at the back. The first (after a helluva lot of noise and waiting) was the expected scrapping of the HS2 Birmingham to Manchester route and tweaks to other bits of the bullet train plan.

We decided this morning, honest: After weeks of Downing Street claiming no decision had been made, the Cabinet met for 45-minutes this morning to rubber stamp what’s clear was long ago decided.

Bullet train firing blanks: In the speech, Sunak said continuing with HS2 despite its spiraling costs was “the ultimate example of the old consensus.” Instead, the government is pledging to spend £36 billion “saved” from the later phases of the project on other transport infrastructure, dubbed “Network North” but spread around the nation — some elements of which have been announced before. A full list is here.

To save a few blushes: The HS2 line will go to Euston in the end, but the London terminal project is being rejigged with private investment, amounting to a development five times bigger than the recent King’s Cross revamp. The current Euston project management is being dumped for ineptitude, although the government won’t attempt to claw any cash back. Ensuring the high speed line reaches Euston at least appears to have appeased West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, who won’t be quitting after all. Here’s his statement.

Don’t wait up: Completion of all the other transport projects (which include various rail and road schemes) will take about the same time as the full HS2 plan was expected to take (i.e. ages) — although bits will be done sooner.

What isn’t clear is whether the government will reform the planning process to stop another HS2 debacle in the future — i.e. a plan that balloons out of all control because the building starts while the consultation and planning is still going on. The 40-page command paper about the new plans doesn’t get into all that, but the triggering words “consultative steps” do appear in the final paragraph.

Be prepared: Expect nothing to happen on time, ambitions to be scaled back and costs to overrun. As ever, Jen Williams is worth a read on this stuff.

What is clear … is there are a hell of a lot of questions still open about the whole “Network North” thing, including the specifics on how the financial numbers will work after the scaling back of HS2. Answers should emerge as the relevant experts dig into the details.

Another question: Is the hand of Dominic Cummings perceptible in all this? Journalist Joshi Herrmann seems to think so, in a piece for Unherd.

NEXT UP: Sunak will put a free vote to the Commons on raising the legal age of purchasing fags by one year every year — meaning swapping cash for ciggies will at some point in the future not be possible in England (and the devolved nations assuming it’s agreed elsewhere.) Downing Street is assuming it will take four years to implement, meaning a 14-year-old today might never be allowed to buy cigarettes in the U.K. More details here.

Smoking in numbers: No. 10 reckons the move will save the NHS a stack of cash, seeing as smoking leads to one hospital admission per minute, as Sunak noted in his speech. Although more cash will be needed to care for all those non-smokers in their old age, of course.

Freedom fighters: Policies on smoking have been brought in via free votes before, so Downing Street is apeing that moel, seeing as Sunak knows a good chunk of his freedom-loving backbenchers won’t be into this idea. Playbook PM understands Liz Truss (who railed against “banning things” in her appearance at conference this week) will vote against it.

Cameron can-do: Downing Street suggested Sunak sees the smoking issue as his same sex marriage moment — which David Cameron brought in believing it was the right thing to do, despite much of the Conservative membership not being fans. “Sometimes a leader has to move ahead and do something,” the PM’s press secretary told journalists.

LAST THING, HONEST: The final big announcement was the scrapping of A-levels and T-levels in favor of a new “Advanced British Standard” qualification, merging academic and skills learning. It will take about a decade to be implemented (Downing Street said) in part because it requires a big boost in teaching numbers.

The promise: Sunak said the new regime would include more teaching time and kids learning more subjects at once, all paid for via a £600 million injection of new cash — although the Treasury didn’t answer the phone for Playbook PM to ask where that cash was coming from. Teachers of STEM subjects will get the chance to earn a £30,000 tax free bonus over the first half decade of their careers — although the details of how that will work are also unclear. More info here.

DON’T FORGET: The big policies Sunak announced this afternoon do look to the long term. But with just a short time to the next election, none of it might end up being implemented.

THE RESPONSE: Labour is accusing Sunak of launching a “desperate attempt to reset his weak leadership” and Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham is of course upset about the HS2 cancellation. Ministers who were skeptical about whether Sunak could do enough to show the Tories have a chance of clinging on at the next election were left pleased with the result — and lots of Tories will be chuffed about transport projects in their seats getting the green light.

But but but: Former PM David Cameron — who doesn’t often criticize his successors — issued a withering blow over HS2. He said the decision to scrap another big chunk of it “will help to fuel the views of those who argue that we can no longer think or act for the long-term as a country; that we are heading in the wrong direction.” Full statement here. Boris Johnson won’t be pleased either, after he warned Sunak against scrapping the Manchester line (despite scrapping the Leeds bit himself when he was PM.)

NOW READ THIS: There’s some excellent inside baseball intel from Annabelle Dickson and the POLITICO team on Downing Street’s plan for the rest of the year, as they line up a series of big “moments” designed to show the Conservatives know what they’re doing. Any MPs feeling glum about the outlook can be reassured they might at least get a minibreak out of it — Annabelle hears Sunak has been hosting MPs and their spouses for weekends at Chequers as he tries to rally the troops.

Don’t read this, Rishi: The piece includes mixed reviews for Sunak’s whole change candidate schtick. Foreign Office Minister Andrew Mitchell tells us: “We’ve had two controversial leaders turfed out and a new broom has come in,” but activists complain there’s no “retail offer” and people are “desperate for him to say something that would make people sit up and take notice.”


BEFORE RISHI’S BIG MOMENT: The Conservatives did the sensible thing and got two of their more natural public speakers to appear ahead of Murthy as a crowd-warmer. Leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt emerged from behind the podium and stalked the stage pointing her finger in various directions as she urged activists to “stand up and fight” for freedom. The address was a clear leadership pitch and a bid to upstage Suella Braverman — marking out the battle lines of the possible leader of the opposition election to come, in which the Conservative right and left plan to tear shreds out of each other.

And then … Cabinet attending Veterans’ Minister (and sometimes straight talking rebel) Johnny Mercer approached the microphones telling the hall he was “surprised” to be given the penultimate slot too, earning a big laugh from the grassroots. His impassioned speech about protecting veterans will no doubt also be seen as a possible stepping stone to the top.

WHAT JUST HAPPENED IN MANCHESTER, IN ONE BIG PARAGRAPH: The Conservatives failed to stop the HS2 question dominating the start of conference … Cabinet ministers including Mark Harper and Claire Coutinho peddled conspiracies … Liz Truss delivered a greatest hits address to adoring activists … Jacob Rees-Mogg demanded the importation of hormone treated beef … Nigel Farage got a hero’s welcome, danced with Priti Patel … Steve Bray was muscled out of an event … Rishi Sunak continued to let the HS2 question dominate conference … Andy Street held an impromptu press conference as a result … Jeremy Hunt’s big idea to cut tax was to freeze civil service recruitment … Kemi Badenoch went full Donald Trump on POLITICO while confirming our scoop about her undeclared Rupert Murdoch meeting … Gillian Keegan re-announced guidance against mobile phone-use in schools … Susan Hall claimed Jews are “frightened” of Sadiq Khan … Rishi Sunak continued to let the HS2 question dominate conference, and didn’t rule out Nigel Farage rejoining the Tories …. He insisted Tories at conference had a “spring in their step” … Lee Anderson went full Donald Trump on a journalist … Michelle Donelan promised to eradicate “woke” from science … Suella Braverman stepped on a dog’s tail, delivered a polemic speech full of hardline talking points, apologized to all dogs … a senior elected Conservative was muscled out of her speech for mumbling dissent … David Frost wore an interesting hat … Miriam Cates ate McDonald’s at 1 a.m. … Penny Mordaunt and Johnny Mercer offered a glimpse of the moderate Conservative fightback … Akshata Murthy made surprise onstage appearance … Rishi Sunak derailed HS2, moved to ban smoking, reform college education and pitched himself as the change candidate … Gillian Keegan let it all out.

Just for good measure: Lee Anderson this morning doubled down on stoking hate against a journalist. This and the conspiracies ministers have helped fuel are the kind of vibe that might seem trivial and harmless at first, but ends in people refusing to accept election results and peaceful handovers of power.

LET’S NOT DO THIS, LADS: The London Assembly member Andrew Boff, who was marched out of the Braverman speech for grumbling about her comments on gender, said the Tories should back off from the culture war stuff, telling LBC this morning: “I very much hope that Suella Braverman learns about the power of her words and moderates her tone.” He reckoned Braverman will never win the leadership because the Conservative moderates will prevail.

THANK THE HINDU GODS IT’S OVER: Conservative MPs were sharing a clip on WhatsApp this week of that scene in the Matrix when Agent Smith tells Morpheus: “I hate this place. This zoo, this prison, this reality or whatever you want to call it. I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing.”

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IN RUSSIA: The government tested its emergency public warning system by blaring sirens and interrupting TV and radio broadcasts. Reuters has a report from Moscow

IN THE VATICAN: Pope Francis urged action on the environment, saying the world is “collapsing” and “near breaking point.” The BBC has the full story

IN AMERICA Tens of thousands of healthcare workers went on strike to protest low wages and staff shortages, with one saying “We’re striking because of our patients. We don’t want to have to do it, but we will do it.” AP has the full report.

IN COLOMBIA:  The army apologized for the deaths of 6,402 civilians between 2002 and 2008 and passing them off as rebel killings. The BBC has a write-up


NEGRONIS AND NARNIA: Chatham House hosts an in conversation event with former Tory MP Rory Stewart from 6 p.m.

SLOSHED WITH SANDAL WEARERS: Westminster Lib Dems host an evening with Daisy Goodwin in conversation with Times columnist and Lib Dem PPC Edward Lucas, also from 6 p.m.

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LEADING THE NEWS BULLETINS: BBC News at Six leads with Rishi Sunak’s speech to Conservative Conference … Channel 4 News (7 p.m.) leads on Sunak’s speech with an interview with Transport Minister Huw Merriman.

Tom Swarbrick at Drive (LBC, until 6 p.m.): Research Fellow in Behavioural Science, Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group at UCL Dr Sharon Cox … Chairman JD Wetherspoons Tim Martin.

News Hour (Sky News, 5 p.m.): Conservative Mayor of the Tees Valley Ben Houchen … Times columnist Rachel Sylvester … POLITICO executive editor Anne McElvoy … Chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership Jim O’Neill.

Drive with John Pienaar (Times Radio, 5 p.m.): 1922 committee Chair Graham Brady … Conservative MP Steve Brine … General Secretary of the Association of School & College Leaders Geoff Barton … Jim O’Neil … MP and former Conservative Party Leader Iain Duncan Smith … Conservative MP Nickie Aiken … Conservative peer Kate Fall … author Sandra Howard … Tortoises’ Cat Neilan … Talk TV’s Adam Boulton.

Sky News Daily (Podcast, drops at 5 p.m.): Sky’s Deputy Political Editor Sam Coates … Justice Secretary Alex Chalk … Northern Ireland Minister Steve Baker … Transport Secretary Mark Harper … Foreign Secretary James Cleverly … Environment Secretary Claire Coutinho

Tonight With Andrew Marr (LBC, 6 p.m.): Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen … Former Downing Street Director of Communications Craig Oliver … Labour peer Sally Morgan … Director of British Future think tank Sunder Katwala

Farage (GB News, 7 p.m.): Political strategist John McTernan … former Boris Johnson adviser Alex Crowley … transport commentator Christian Wolmar.

Politics Hub with Sophy Ridge (Sky News, 7 p.m.):  Activist Nimco Ali and journalist Philip Collins on the panel, interviews with Huw Merriman … Northern Powerhouse Partnership Chief Executive Henri Murison.

First Edition (TalkTV, 10 p.m.): Henri Murrison … Tory MP Bim Afolami

REVIEWING THE PAPERS TONIGHT: TalkTV (10 p.m.): The Telegraph’s Madeline Grant and Joe.co.uk’s Ava Evans.


ELECTION STATIONS: Scots in Rutherglen and Hamilton West elect a new MP to replace ousted Margaret Ferrier.


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