“BE in no doubt, it is time for change, and we are it,” said Rishi Sunak at the end of his first speech as leader to the Conservative Party conference.

The polls suggest the people do believe it is time for change. After 13 years of Conservative-led government, and five Conservative prime ministers, Mr Sunak concluded that the only way for change is for the government to stay the same.

To convince people to carry on voting Conservative, he then tore into the Conservatives’ record over the last 13 years. For example, HS2, the infrastructure project that the last seven Conservative transport secretaries have assured a sceptical nation was the best way forward, is no longer the best way forward and is being torn up.

The Northern Echo: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers his keynote speech at the Conservative Party annual conference

Mr Sunak blamed “mismanagement” for this. Then he announced that he was replacing the railway scheme with loads more railway schemes which will be managed by the same Department of Transport which, as an exasperated chancellor Jeremy Hunt has said this week, has overseen the building of a railway which is 10 times more expensive than a comparable project in France.

In truth, many of the 70 new road, rail and bus schemes are welcome, particularly in the North East which, since the scrapping of the Leeds leg of HS2, was never going to have a connection to the high speed network.


But what are the chances of a fully electrified line being built from Manchester to Hull via Bradford in Mr Sunak’s lifetime? What are the chances of the next Conservative leader taking one look at the spiralling costs of, say, the Leamside line which also has cross-party support, and, inspired by Mr Sunak’s screeching u-turn, tear it up and use the savings for tax cuts, as the Rees Mogg wing of the party would like?

After talking transport, Mr Sunak turned to education, where his party’s 16 to 19 policy has been such a success that he’s sweeping it all away, including the T-levels introduced only in 2020, and replacing it with something new, an Advanced British Standard. It’ll require more teachers, some of whom are to be recruited with an immense £30,000 tax free bonus over their first five years which suggests that the teaching unions have been right all along this summer: teachers’ low pay is affecting recruitment.

The Northern Echo: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers his keynote speech at the Conservative Party annual conferencePrime Minister Rishi Sunak with his wife Akshata Murty on stage at the end of his keynote speech during the Conservative Party annual conference at the Manchester Central convention complex

One of the loudest bursts of applause Mr Sunak gained was for his attack on “wokery”. He said: “Patients should know when hospitals are talking about men or women…a man is a man and a woman is a woman. That’s just plain common sense.” The recent Quality Care Commission report into the failings of Darlington Memorial Hospital’s maternity unit was notable for using the phrase “women and birthing people” on 69 occasions in its 25 pages – you can’t blame that on anyone other than whichever woke party has been in charge of the Department of Health for the last 13 years.

With his remarkable doublespeak about the need for change, Mr Sunak was also talking about the need to change the perception of himself. In the last year, he has become known for his steadiness, after the rottenness of the Boris Johnson era and the flakiness of Liz Truss’s 44 days. Mr Sunak steadied the ship, and began undoing nasty knots, like Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements.

But, because of what has gone before, steadiness alone hasn’t proved enough for the polls which still give Labour a commanding lead.

Other than not holding illegal parties and not out-lasting a lettuce, voters have struggled to understand what Mr Sunak’s time in office is all about.


His conference speech will not really have helped, as railways – which made up a large portion of his hour-long address – are not top of many people’s priorities when cost-of-living is biting, schools are literally crumbling, waterways are polluted, and one-in-ten of us are on an NHS waiting list.

The Northern Echo: Rishi Sunak giving his speech to the Conservative Party conferenceThe Richmond MP and his wife, Akshata Murty, at the Manchester conference

Mr Sunak spoke reasonably about making smoking illegal, but such a Blair-like policy is instinctively opposed by freedom-loving Tories. The Conservative-magazine The Spectator immediately labelled it “a terrible policy” and rumours began that Ms Truss would vote against it.

The right of his party would have preferred a red meat speech about tax cuts and economic growth, which is why they’ve been jostling behind Ms Truss, Nigel Farage, Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch over the last few days as they try to pick the next leader.

But the most immediate question is not really about the long term change that Mr Sunak claimed to be interested in. It is about short term change. Labour, under Keir Starmer, has been edging cautiously towards polling day, trying to avoid upsetting the apple cart and spilling the party’s 20 point lead.

Does that now change? Does the change to A-levels present Sunderland’s Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary who has been so calm during the RAAC crisis, with the need to come up with a reform beyond ending tax breaks for private schools?

And for all the embarrassment of Britain, once the birthplace of the railways, being left with a half-built railway to Birmingham, the 700 schemes totalling £36bn in the new Network North does give Labour a headache – can it afford to match them and complete HS2? – and that is something of a change.


The Northern Echo: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers his keynote speech at the Conservative Party annual conference