Rishi Sunak’s Tory conference speech goes up in smoke as David Cameron and Liz Truss attack key plans

Rishi Sunak came under fire within hours of delivering his first Conservative Party conference speech as three former Tory prime ministers took aim at his flagship plans.

In a wide-ranging address, the PM finally announced he was scrapping the northern leg of HS2 – as first revealed by The Independent – and unveiled a ban on cigarettes for the next generation.

But in an extraordinary attack, David Cameron denounced the decision to axe the high-speed line beyond Birmingham as the “wrong one”, saying that a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” had been lost. Boris Johnson piled in too, saying: “I agree”.

Liz Truss also let it be known she would vote against Mr Sunak’s plans to eradicate smoking after he announced he would ban young people from ever being able to buy cigarettes.

Mr Sunak had earlier pledged to be “radical” in the face of opposition, saying he acted after HS2’s costs “more than doubled” and that smoking cost lives – and the NHS millions of pounds – a year.

It came as the PM also:

But not even an emotional introduction from his wife Akshata Murty could save the prime minister from the storm of criticism over his U-turn on HS2.

A defiant Mr Sunak used his speech to defend the decision, after weeks of speculation following revelations by this newspaper, claiming it showed he was the strong leader Britain needed.

Overnight, the Tory leader had criticised the “broken” politics of the last 30 years – much of it under Conservative governments – saying he was not afraid to make difficult choices.

After 13 years of Tory rule, he told the Conservative faithful: “It is time for a change – and we are it.”

He insisted that when it came to scrapping HS2, “the facts have changed” and the cost had more than doubled, meaning he had to act.

Former prime minister David Cameron said the decision on HS2 ‘is the wrong one’ (PA)
Former prime minister David Cameron said the decision on HS2 ‘is the wrong one’ (PA)

But the prime minister was met with howls of outrage from northern leaders, business chiefs and senior Tories.

Mr Cameron warned it would “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” and make it harder to build long-term infrastructure projects in the future.

The former PM, writing on social media site X/Twitter, said: “I regret this decision and 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.”

The sentiment was shared by Mr Johnson and former chancellor George Osborne, who both shared the tweet, replying simply: “I agree.”

Andy Street, the Tory mayor of the West Midlands, stopped short of quitting the party and said he was “disappointed” but conceded keeping the HS2 link into London’s Euston station was a “good compromise”.

In an apparent gaffe, Downing Street said Mr Sunak had made the final decision on HS2 on Wednesday morning – but a video clip explaining the move appeared to have been filmed in No 10, prior to his trip to the Manchester conference.

Mr Sunak also challenged Labour to say if they would cancel a host of newly announced transport schemes in a bid to revive HS2. He said he respected those who disagreed with him but “they should have the honesty to admit that they would now be cancelling the hundreds of alternative projects”.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham accused the prime minister of showing a lack of respect for Manchester. He said the plan for other transport projects was “not a solution” and would be merely “patching up” existing links.

And Manchester City Council leader Bev Craig said the North did not want to be “hoodwinked in the promise of more cash … without it ever being realistic”.

In another major announcement, Mr Sunak said the legal age to buy cigarettes would rise every year to stop children ever taking up smoking.

HS2 will continue to Euston station in central London as planned after fears it would stop miles short of there (PA)
HS2 will continue to Euston station in central London as planned after fears it would stop miles short of there (PA)

He said it was right to act to end “the biggest cause of preventable death and disease in our country" – a move experts have said would mean up to 1.7 million fewer people smoking by 2075 and save the NHS £2.4bn a year.

But libertarian Ms Truss, who has called on her party to stop banning things, is expected to vote against the move.

The plan has secured the support of Labour, however, meaning it is almost certain to become law in a move that has been praised by charities.

Cancer Research UK’s chief executive Michelle Mitchell said: “Raising the age of sale on tobacco products is a critical step on the road to creating the first-ever smoke-free generation.”

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, said: “The prime minister has today announced an unprecedented set of measures to protect the next generation and hasten the day when smoking is obsolete.

“We look forward to the day when smoking is no longer responsible for avoidable ill health and perinatal mortality in babies and young children, nor the leading cause of premature death in adults.”

Mr Sunak also said the government would introduce a new single qualification, “the Advanced British Standard”, to replace A-levels and technical T-levels. But with the plans not likely to be brought in for 10 years, the first exams will be sat by today’s six-year-olds.

The move would see pupils typically study five subjects rather than the current three, and see all take some form of English and mathematics until the age of 18.

But education unions said the PM’s plans were “pie in the sky” and “likely to prove a pipe dream” due to teacher shortages.

Labour’s national campaign coordinator Pat McFadden said: “The Tories have let Britain down for too long. They cannot be the change from their own failures. The damage they would do with five more years would be intolerable for working people.”