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by Staff reporter
04 October 2023
Rishi Sunak says ‘forces of separatism in retreat’ as he makes jibe about Nicola Sturgeon

Rishi Sunak says ‘forces of separatism in retreat’ as he makes jibe about Nicola Sturgeon

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has used his speech at the Conservative party conference to make a joke about former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

In a wide-ranging speech, Sunak cancelled the northern leg of the HS2 rail project and also set out plans to raise the legal smoking age by one year, every year – effectively banning the habit for the next generation.

Referring to the Union, Sunak told delegates in Manchester that the “forces of separatism are in retreat across our country”.

And referring to the ongoing police investigation into the SNP’s finances, he joked: “Nicola Sturgeon wanted to go down as the woman who broke up our country but it now looks like she may go down for very different reasons.

“We are remarkable combination of four nations with a proud history, and that history should give us enormous confidence in our future.”

Elsewhere in the speech, Sunak confirmed the government will cancel the rest of HS2, which would have completed a high-speed line from Birmingham to Manchester, ending weeks of speculation over the project.

Sunak argued that the “old consensus” of HS2 was broken and required change, setting out how the government intends to use the money on alternative transport infrastructure. 

The announcement follows days of speculation over whether the government had come to a final decision over whether to scrap the long-running project. 

“What we really need is better transport connections in the north, a new network north that will join up our great towns and cities in the northern Midlands,” he said.

“HS2 is the ultimate example of the old consensus. The result is a project whose costs have more than doubled, which has been repeatedly delayed and it is not scheduled to reach here in Manchester for almost two decades. and for which the economic case has massively been weakened with the changes to business travel post Covid. 

“I say to those who backed the project in the first place: the facts have changed and the right thing to do when the facts change is to have the courage to change direction.”

He said that the HS2 project would be replaced by £36bn investment into hundreds of other projects, including rail hubs in the midlands, linking up Manchester and Liverpool, and upgrading rail lines in Wales.

Confirming the line between Birmingham and Euston will be completed, Sunak said a new Euston Development Zone would be created, building thousands of new homes and a rail station.

The prime minister addressed calls for tax cuts from some of his backbench MPs: “I know you want tax cuts, I want them too and we will deliver them…

“But the best tax cut we can give people right now is to have inflation and ease the cost of living.”

He also defended his decision to row back on some of the government’s net zero targets. 

“As you could tell by the reaction to my decision to chart a new course to net zero. It was not the easiest argument to have,” he said.

“Change is difficult, particularly for those who disagree, but remember this: we will still meet our international obligations. We will still meet our domestic targets, and we will still get to net zero by 2050. We have solved a problem, and offered an unapologetic defence of good conservative common sense.”

Sunak said the political system was “too focused on short term advantage, not long-term success”.

“There is the undeniable sense that politics just doesn’t work the way it should. [There is a] feeling that Westminster is a broken system—and the same goes for Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont.  

“It isn’t anger, it is an exhaustion with politics. In particular, politicians saying things, and then nothing ever changing. And you know what: people are right.  

“Politics doesn’t work the way it should. We’ve had thirty years of a political system which incentivises the easy decision, not the right one. Thirty years of vested interests standing in the way of change.”

"Our political system is too focused on short term advantage, not long-term success. Politicians spent more time campaigning for change than actually delivering it. It doesn't have to be this way. I won't be this way. 

“Our mission is to fundamentally change our country.”

His wife Akshata Murphy appeared on the stage before Sunak, describing herself as a “surprise addition” and claimed her husband had “no idea” what she was going to say. 

“When I told our lovely girls about being here today, they were also quite surprised. But look, the reason why I'm here is really quite simple. 

“And it's because Rishi and I are each other's best friends. We're one team, and I could not imagine being anywhere else but here today with all of you to show my support to him and to the party.”

She said “aspiration runs through his DNA” and that he was full of “energy and passion” for the future of the country. 

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