Rishi Sunak defends his policies in TV grilling as Conservative Party conference begins in Manchester

The prime minister resisted calls to announce pre-election tax giveaway as he sat down with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves a television studio, during the Conservative Party's annual conference, in Manchester, Britain, October 1, 2023. REUTERS/Toby Melville
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What's happening? Rishi Sunak has defended his policies in a tense BBC interview as the Conservative Party conference started in Manchester.

The Tories gathered on Sunday for the opening of their four-day conference, with questions hanging over the future of the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail project and clamour from party members for tax cuts to be unveiled.

But Sunak, in his first conference as leader, resisted calls to announce a pre-election tax giveaway as he sat down with the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg.

He also insisted the UK is not a "laughing stock" over HS2 as he failed to announce a decision on whether it would ever reach Manchester.

The wide-ranging interview also covered his recent decision to water down net zero commitments and an announcement that he was "slamming the brakes on the war on motorists" by producing a slew of pro-driving policies.

Here Yahoo News UK looks at the topics covered in Sunak's interview on Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg:

Tax cuts

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 01: Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Community and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations speaks to Sky News on day one of the Conservative party conference on October 01, 2023 in Manchester, England. The Conservative Party Conference is being held in Manchester this year and will be Rishi Sunak's first speech to the party members as Conservative leader. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Sunak insisted the biggest "tax cut" he could give people would be to meet his goal of halving inflation.

"I'm a Conservative, of course I want to cut taxes," the PM said. "The best tax cut that I can deliver for the British people right now is to halve inflation."

But earlier on Sunday, the levelling up secretary Michael Gove had said he wanted cuts announced before the next general election to ease the tax burden on working households.

Senior Conservative MP Dame Priti Patel also suggested people needed to be feeling the impact of tax cuts before an election.


A road sign is seen as construction continues of the HS2 high speed rail project, near Amersham, Britain, September 29, 2023. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Construction is continuing on the HS2 high-speed rail project. (Reuters) (Toby Melville / reuters)

Sunak failed to announce a decision on whether HS2 would ever reach Manchester as he visited the city for the Tory party conference.

Andy Street, the Tory mayor of the West Midlands, is among the critics of scaling back the project, while London mayor Sadiq Khan warned it could make the UK a "laughing stock".

But Sunak told Kuenssberg: "I'd completely reject that."

Net zero

Sunak claimed the UK was "not off track" to meet net zero targets despite his decision to water down commitments.

Watch: Rishi Sunak heckled as he arrives for BBC interview

He promised his new way would be "more pragmatic, more proportionate, more realistic".

The PM added this change was not a knee-jerk reaction to the Uxbridge by-election, in which Sadiq Khan's expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) scheme to London's suburbs was blamed for Labour narrowly missing out on winning, and he had raised concerns before about the net zero commitments.

Criticism from Iceland boss

EDITORIAL USE ONLY Richard Walker, Managing Director of Iceland Foods announces the supermarkets new campaign supporting the NHS Healthy Start scheme, London. Issue date: Monday June 13, 2022.
Richard Walker has quit the Tory party. (PA) (John Nguyen, PA Images)

The prime minister was challenged about comments from Iceland boss Richard Walker, who claimed the Tories are "drifting out of touch" with the needs of business, the environment and "everyday people".

He said that Walker talked about net zero and prioritising working people and "that's the decision I've made".

Sunak said: "Change may be uncomfortable for people. People may be critical of it, but I believe on doing the right thing for the country."

The PM was dealt a blow on the eve of the conference when it was revealed Walker, the executive chairman of Iceland supermarket, had quit the party.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and wife Akshata Murty arriving in Manchester on the eve of the Conservative Party Conference. Picture date: Saturday September 30, 2023. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)
Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty arrive in Manchester on the eve of the Conservative Party conference. (Getty) (Stefan Rousseau - PA Images via Getty Images)

Sunak challenged over public view of him as 'rich'

Sunak – who with his wife Akshata Murty has an estimated net worth of £529 million – was shown a word cloud on the BBC that suggested the main thing the public thought about him was he was "rich".

But Sunak pointed to his decisions to ease the shift away from gas boilers and petrol and diesel cars as signs he understood the cost pressures facing people.

He said: "It might be fine for them to do all those things. I don't think it's right, I don't think it's necessary. I want to save families £5-, £10-, £15-, £20,000. That's why I made the decision I did."

Read more: Sunak challenged over public view of him as 'rich' (PA)

A 20mph speed limit signpost and local shops on Lordship Lane, in East Dulwich, on 15th March 2017, London borough of Southwark, England. (Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images Images)
Sunak has admitted that councils will still be able to implement 20mph zones under new policy. (Reuters) (Richard Baker via Getty Images)

20mph zones

Sunak has admitted that councils will still be able to implement 20mph zones for drivers if they have local consent and follow government guidance.

Pressed if he will stop local authorities introducing the zones under his efforts to combat what he calls a "war on motorists", the PM told Kuenssberg: "What this is about is making sure that the statutory guidance that goes to local councils from government is clear about making sure that councils – which are obviously in charge of what's happening in their local areas – are doing things with the support and consent of their local communities, taking into account the needs of their communities, and not imposing things on them without their consent and say so.

"What they (councils) should be allowed to do in all cases is act in accordance with the government guidance."

Transport Secretary Mark Harper will set out the details in his speech to the Tory conference, Sunak added.

Read more: 20mph zones can still be introduced by councils under motorists plan, PM admits (The Telegraph)

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