Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain, taking the stage at his first Conservative Party conference as leader on Wednesday, sought to cast himself as a change agent who would rebuild his economically depleted country.
But in one change that swiftly undercut his claim to be a builder, Mr. Sunak said he would pull the plug on a key part of an ambitious high-speed rail project that had been a cornerstone of his party’s promises to spread prosperity to the north of England.
The prime minister said the curtailment of part of the project, called HS2, was less a retreat than a redistribution of resources. He promised that the saved money would be used to better connect cities in England’s north with each other, rather than with London, pledging to build light-rail networks and tram systems, and to upgrade highways across the north.
“HS2 is the ultimate example of the old consensus,” Mr. Sunak said in his hourlong address to an audience of Conservative Party members, members of Parliament and activists. “The facts have changed, and the right thing to do when the facts change is to have the courage to change direction.”
Still, the symbolism of shutting down a signature project at a conference that used the slogan “Long-term decisions for a brighter future” was jarring.
And the setting could not have been more incongruous. Mr. Sunak spoke in a vaulted former train station in Manchester, a city that was to have been a prime beneficiary of the rail line. It would have cut travel times from there to the capital by nearly half, to just over an hour.
Now, the high-speed line will terminate in Birmingham, in central England, forcing the new trains to continue more slowly along lines that are already congested.
The announcement provoked a backlash even within his party. David Cameron, the former Conservative prime minister who championed HS2 as an “engine for growth” in 2013, wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that Mr. Sunak’s decision was “the wrong one,” adding, “In years to come I suspect many will look back at today’s announcement and wonder how this once-in-a-generation opportunity was lost.”
Mr. Sunak said that the decision was proof of his capacity to make tough calls at a time of financial distress. He argued that the coronavirus pandemic changed travel patterns, making the project — with costs projected to soar to more than 100 billion pounds, about $121 billion — no longer the best use of public money.
It was one of a series of moves, including watering down the country’s net-zero commitments and championing drivers, through which Mr. Sunak has tried to rebrand himself before a general election next year.
No longer the cautious technocrat who restored some of Britain’s financial credibility after the turbulent tenure of his predecessor, Liz Truss, Mr. Sunak now wants to be seen as a disrupter with a populist touch.
It is a tricky metamorphosis for the onetime investment banker, who came to power in the messy aftermath of the downfall of Ms. Truss. Neither he nor Ms. Truss ever won a general election as leader, instead being elevated by their party after the scandal-plagued prime minister Boris Johnson resigned in July last year.
“After 13 years and five Tory prime ministers, Rishi Sunak’s latest desperate attempt to reset his weak leadership and divided government won’t fool the British public who are looking at Tory failures all around them,” said Pat McFadden, national campaign coordinator for the opposition Labour Party.
In addition to canceling the rail project, Mr. Sunak announced plans for a gradual ban on the sale of cigarettes, so that those now age 14 or younger would never be able to buy them legally, and new measures to restrict the sale of vapes to children.
And he set out sweeping education changes that would compel high-school students to study five subjects — including English and math — instead of the three in which most specialize between the ages of 16 and 19. Financial incentives would be given to recruit and retain the extra teachers this would require, he said.
There were glimpses of Mr. Sunak’s socially conservative values, including a pledge to propose life in prison without parole for those who commit sexual or sadistic murders. He also said Britons should not be “bullied” into being told gender identity is something to be chosen.
“A man is a man, and a woman is a woman,” he declared. “That is just common sense.”
The party seemed determined to build a personal narrative around Mr. Sunak, and his wife, Akshata Murty, appeared onstage to introduce his speech. “He’s fun, he’s thoughtful, he’s compassionate, and he has an incredible zest for life,” she said.
Despite that attempt to humanize the prime minister, it was not clear how effective his reset had been. When attendees were not speculating about the status of the rail project, they were being distracted by rivals to Mr. Sunak, past and future.
An unrepentant Ms. Truss turned up to defend her brief period in Downing Street to an adoring audience, while Suella Braverman, the home secretary, delivered a fiery speech on immigration that served as a kind of audition for party leader, should the Tories lose the general election, as polls suggest they will.
They brought a jolt of electricity to what was otherwise a rather flat gathering, reflective of a party that is trailing Labour by double digits.
“There is no getting away from the fact that there aren’t many members of Parliament here,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College London. “It’s a very sparsely attended conference, and there’s none of the buzz that we got used to having over the last five or six years.”
Mr. Sunak appears to have calculated that he needs to offer a new vision for Britain, partly to dispel the charge of the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, that he was “inaction man.”
Seeming to acknowledge the voter fatigue with the Conservatives that has been repeatedly shown in polls, Mr. Sunak attempted an almost impossible feat: to position himself, the leader of the governing party, as the disrupter the country needed.
“Be in no doubt, it is time for a change, and we are it,” he proclaimed.
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