Rishi Sunak delivered his speech on the main stage at Tory conference in Manchester today. The Chancellor appeared to prioritise political positioning and had little to offer in the way of big new policies, announcing only that several schemes will be extended. This includes the ‘kickstart’ scheme subsidising eligible jobs for young people on Universal Credit, which has only seen 77,000 start in these roles rather than a figure approaching the 250,000 aimed for by the end of the year.
In his first in-person conference speech, Sunak reiterated that he is a a fiscal hawk, praising his predecessors’ last “ten years of sound Conservative management of our economy” and telling the room: “I believe in fiscal responsibility and everyone in this hall does too.” It has been widely noted that Labour might struggle to differentiate itself on the economy from the Conservatives, who implemented the furlough scheme and other bold measures during Covid, but Sunak stressed today: “We must never forget that the fundamental economic differences between us and Labour run very deep.”
Labour’s top criticism of the speech so far has been the lack of attention paid to the climate crisis. Search for the words ‘climate’, ‘green’, ‘COP26’, ‘nature’, ‘carbon’ or ‘net zero’, and not one mention is found in Sunak’s address. Ed Miliband, Labour’s energy spokesperson, called it “deeply worrying” and contrasted the speech with that of Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, whose ideas for a green transition were at the centre of her pitch in Brighton. Sunak’s opposite announced last week that Labour would put an additional £28bn of capital investment towards a green transition “for each and every year of this decade”.
The other key attack of the opposition party has been to say Sunak’s speech showed he is “in denial about the scale of the economic crisis he has overseen” and “has no plan or will to tackle it”. Bridget Phillipson said: “Rishi Sunak has overseen the worst economic crisis in the G7, with our economy shrinking by 9.9% in 2020, deeper than Italy (8.9%), and France (7.8%) – and our recovery still further away than any other G7 economy. Instead of putting forward a plan to boost our economy and invest in the skills we need and the challenges we need to face, he’s pretending there’s no work to be done.”
The TUC pointed out the flaws in Sunak’s repeated line that the government wants to see “good work, better skills and higher wages”. Frances O’Grady said there is “not a serious plan for raising living standards” as if the Chancellor wants higher wages “he shouldn’t be freezing the pay of millions of key workers”. She added that, in the face of a cost of living crisis, Sunak should reverse the cut to Universal Credit. Similarly, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said: “The Chancellor may say he has a plan for jobs but he has no plan for paying the bills… The government can’t credibly claim to be levelling up while levelling down people’s incomes.” But, in attacking Labour for wanting to increase benefits and encourage people to “lean ever more on the state”, Sunak made clear that this is exactly what he intends to do.