Some key points and comments on prime minister Rishi Sunak’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, October 4th.
The PM appeared strongly Thatcherite, emphasising service, values, work and family, and promising tax cuts but not immediately. He sounded like Barack Obama, when he charted his route to becoming the first non-white PM. And he portrayed himself as a radical, repudiating much of what had gone before.
“I will tell it as it is, lead in a different way,” he said.
- Sunak said that 16-19 technical education “does not get the respect it deserves”. The last Labour government “abandoned apprenticeships”, he said, preferring to get 50% of young people into universities. “One of the greatest mistakes of the past 30 years.” There would be “no more rip-off degrees”. It is to be hoped that funding for engineering degrees for British students can be increased, as it is currently said to be below cost.
- Sunak launched his idea for an “Advanced British Standard”, which would like to see merged A Levels and T Levels, with students studying five subjects in-depth and for more hours than the three they study at present. This is a long-term project – it could take 10 years. A length policy document, which will be followed by consultation, is published here: A world-class education system – The Advanced British Standard (publishing.service.gov.uk) See also FE Week: Advanced British Standard: Everything you need to know (feweek.co.uk). This looks like a genuinely radical shake-up but could be positive for education. It is unclear what impact it might have on T-Levels, which are currently struggling in many sectors, including engineering, not least due to the requirement for a 45-days industry placement. But the proposal, if implemented, may bolster the status of T Levels. It will also put onus on Labour to respond. Labour’s last comment on T Level was that they were a work in progress.
- On Brexit, Sunak attacked Sir Keir Starmer, noting (accurately) that he Starmer had said he wanted to stay aligned with the EU and never seize opportunities (“just wants to follow all the EU rules”). [Labour has indicated that Starmer’s comments should not be taken as meaning he wanted to remain 100% aligned.]
- The PM said that “since leaving the Single Market, we’ve grown faster than France and Germany, not despite Brexit, because of Brexit”. This assertion is controversial, as many engineering (and other) firms have felt leaving the EU has been a handicap. Miguel Berger, German ambassador to the UK, said: “I think that statistic only works if you omit that UK had in 2020 during Covid the highest recession (-11%, Germany -3,7%) and therefore a much higher recovery rate in 2021.”
- He promised “a more agile regulatory regime, freeing up firms to drive growth”, including in financial services, clinical trials and agriculture.
- The UK has the lowest corporation tax rate in the G7 group of countries and, due to Jeremy Hunt’s tax cuts [assumed to be the full expensing announced this year] “is the best place to invest in the machinery and equipment that your business needs to grow”, he said. This seemed aimed at Conservatives who are demanding tax cuts in the autumn statement.
- R&d incentives are “the most generous” in the G7, he said. SME incentives were cut last autumn and are being reviewed. In July, the government noted that “the increase in the RDEC rate from 13% to 20% at Autumn Statement 2022 means the UK now has the joint highest uncapped headline rate of tax relief in the G7 for large companies”. Summary_of_Responses_-_RD.pdf (publishing.service.gov.uk) (Para 3.3)
- Sunak thanked business and trade secretary Kemi Badenoch for cutting £1 billion from EU-legacy small business red tape. This is understood to have referred to a package of reforms, most notably some detailed changes to Working Time rules. Smarter regulation unveiled to cut red tape and grow the economy – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
- He referred to “my decision to chart a new course to net zero”.
- He axed much of HS2 – the most reported part of his speech – and said that the £36 billion saved would be spent on road and rail transport elsewhere, including created a Network North to level up. HS2 is the ultimate example of the old consensus of the past 30 years that has prevailed in politics at Westminster, also in Cardiff and Edinburgh, he said.