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Rogue Trader

October 5th 2023

Imagine your house needs an extension. You find a builder, you commission plans, you battle your council for permission, and you’re ready to go. Down comes your back wall, the kitchen is stripped out, foundations are laid.

One morning, mid-project, the builder pops upstairs for a chat. He thinks the extension’s a bad idea. After all, the shower’s dodgy, and the hallway tiling looks a bit tired. And don’t you think we should prioritise repainting the bedrooms over putting in that conservatory?

If the builder does at least some of that instead of the job he was going to do, you’ll even save a couple of grand. Just don’t think too much about the fact that you don’t have a back wall anymore…


Rishi Sunak today delivered his first conference speech as party leader. His job was to define himself and his party as agents of change. His obvious challenge: the Conservatives have been in government for the past 13 years, and he’s been a top Cabinet minister since 2020.

He chose to project ‘change’ through three ‘huge’ (his word) policies – but the first was, as seems to be the case so often, a negative. Sunak confirmed he would indeed scrap the northern section of High Speed 2, a long-delayed and vastly over-budget rail line – ostensibly, in order to invest in a dizzying array of alternative transport projects. Oddly, many of these had already been promised by previous governments, and none of them address the question HS2 was designed to answer.

It is fundamentally dishonest. Many of the alternative projects have been promised for even longer than HS2. But dishonesty has been a theme of this conference. Whether it was the Energy Secretary claiming that Labour want to introduce a meat tax, or the Home Secretary calling a vote for Labour a vote for ‘open borders’, the cabinet have not let the truth get in the way of a good yarn in Manchester.

Sunak’s other announcements? A slow-motion ban on smoking (even though it is projected to vanish as a popular habit by 2050 anyway), that has already been rejected by the libertarian wing of the party, represented by Liz Truss. There was an ‘Advanced British Standard’ that scraps both A Levels and T Levels. Oh, and he’s going to crack down on long-term sickness.

Do you buy any of this? That depends on whether you think that a government can regenerate itself completely through the sheer force of the Prime Minister’s will. Bear in mind: they are the same people with the same problems and the same exhausting neuroses that they have been for the last decade.

Are they going to get on and redevelop Bradford station - something they have promised to do in three consecutive election manifestos - now that they’ve vandalised HS2? Why would they? They didn’t in 2015; they didn’t in 2017; they didn’t in 2019; they haven’t at any point since. Is Gillian Keegan going to implement a British Baccalaureate? Maybe. But it was exactly this policy that Michael Gove, whose reforms Sunak praised in the same speech, made a big fuss of cancelling in his first weeks as Education Secretary.

This is a government consumed by the need to fight demons of their own making, to fix problems they created, to complain about the state of a nation they have governed for most of this century. Rishi Sunak professes to believe that our politics has been lost and broken for thirty years. On this it is likely the British public agrees with him. But it is the last thirteen years that are front of mind for most voters, eight of which Sunak spent as an increasingly senior and powerful Tory MP.

He’s the builder who’s demolished the back of your house, has no plan for rebuilding it and now expects you to be grateful that he’s prepared to take the debris away and sell it for scrap. He’s no longer a city boy, and he’s not yet a serious politician.

He’s just a rogue trader.