Rishi Sunak addressed his first Conservative Party conference as party leader on Wednesday and used his own elevation as the country’s first Indian-origin Prime Minister as proof that the UK is not a racist country and that his skin colour was not a “big deal”.
Dubbed as the most important speech of his political career nearly a year after he took charge as Tory leader, there was a lot riding on the 43-year-old leader’s address to the governing party activists gathered in Manchester ahead of a general election expected next year.
After a warm and personal introduction by wife Akshata Murty, who praised his “honesty, integrity and strength of character”, Sunak went on to lay out his plans for what he hopes would win him the British public’s mandate at the next polls.
“Never let anyone tell you that this is a racist country. It is not,” said Sunak.
“My story is a British story. A story about how a family can go from arriving here with little to Downing Street in three generations,” he said.
He went on to point to his frontline Cabinet members in the audience, among them Indian-origin Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho, as reflective of what the Tories offer migrant families, including “even the chance to become Prime Minister”.
Reflecting on when he was first chosen by the local Conservative Association to contest from the stronghold of Richmond in North Yorkshire, a seat he has held as MP since his win in 2015, Sunak claimed people in other countries couldn’t understand it.
“One American magazine even sent a reporter to Yorkshire to write about how ‘a candidate of the wrong race [could] cost the Tories one of the safest seats in England?’ But they should not have projected their own prejudices onto our country. The people of North Yorkshire were not interested in my colour, but my character,” shared Sunak.
“I am proud to be the first British Asian Prime Minister, but you know what, I’m even prouder that it’s just not a big deal. And just remember: it was the Conservative Party who made that happen, not the [Opposition] Labour Party,” he added.
During the speech that will define the remainder of his term as Prime Minister until the next elections, Sunak’s mantra was long-term decisions to transform the UK for a brighter future.
He drew a line under an issue that had been brewing for days and cancelled the remainder of the High Speed-2 (HS2) railway project to instead invest GBP 36 billion in wider transport projects.
He said the decision to scrap the project was due to huge costs and long delays.
Besides, Sunak also made a series of announcements across health and education sectors including plans to increase the smoking age.
“I propose that in future we raise the smoking age by one year, every year. That means a 14-year-old today will never legally be sold a cigarette and that they — and their generation — can grow up smoke free. We know this works,” he said.
On the education system, he added: “We will introduce the new rigorous, knowledge rich Advanced British Standard which will bring together A-Levels and T-Levels into a new, single qualification for our school leavers. First, this will finally deliver on the promise of parity of esteem between academic and technical education because all students will sit the Advanced British Standard.
“Second, we will raise the floor, ensuring that our children leave school literate and numerate because with the Advanced British Standard all students will study some form of English and maths to 18, with extra help for those who struggle most.”
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