David Davis MP writes for ConservativeHome about the Prime Minister’s speech at Conservative Party Conference 2023


As published on ConservativeHome

The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees possibility in every difficulty. The announcements set out by the Prime Minister in Manchester have confirmed that he is an optimist, unafraid to take difficult decisions that will ultimately drive our country forward towards a brighter future.

The decision that the Prime Minister has taken on HS2 was undoubtedly a difficult one, but it is also an opportunity. When George Osborne renewed Gordon Brown’s HS2 commitment, I forecast that costs of HS2 would quadruple; they have already more than doubled. And that cost has been sucked out of other more effective investments in the North of England. In a post-pandemic world, the economic case for it simply doesn’t make sense anymore. The reality is that HS2 has become a symptom of a wider problem. We need to change our approach to future transport infrastructure so that our towns, cities and villages can achieve their true potential.

The Prime Minister has been clear that following the decision, every pound that would have been spent extending HS2 will be invested in transport improvements that benefit far more people, in more places and more quickly. We are talking about billions of pounds worth of investment that changes lives for the better.

I’ve long been an HS2 sceptic on performance as well as cost. When you build a big connector like HS2 between two big cities, the historic evidence shows that smaller one loses out and the bigger one grows. It would be wrong to allow Manchester to lose out to London and it would be a complete betrayal of the levelling up agenda.

Instead, the Prime Minister has announced billions of pounds to link Liverpool and Manchester to deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail; £36 billion for hundreds of projects in towns, cities and rural areas across the whole country; and investment in roads, rail and buses. This is good for our constituents, good for the economy and will be a boost for jobs right across the country.

At the same time, if we are to build a better future then we must also build a world-class education system that equips children to deal with modern life. Consecutive Conservative governments have transformed educational attainment in the United Kingdom but it remains the case that too many young people are leaving full-time education without the skills that they need to flourish.

For years we have said that we will deliver parity of esteem between technical and academic learning. We have made progress, particularly on apprenticeships. However, the Prime Minister has announced that the artificial separation between technical and academic courses will be abolished so that everyone is treated equally. That means bringing together the best of both A-levels and T-levels to introduce the Advanced British Standard.

This will be a baccalaureate-style qualification, increasing teaching time by at least fifteen percent for 16-19 year olds. Every young person will study English and maths to age 19 and this will be coupled with £600 million of new investment in teachers over the next two years. We will keep the academic rigour of A-levels and the technical modules that are the very bedrock of T-levels. This is about taking the opportunity to do things better and prepare our young people for modern life and the challenges and possibilities that it brings.

Since Tony Blair, too many Prime Minister have based their judgments on opinion polls and focus groups.   This inevitably favours short term popularity over long term effectiveness. Long term decisions are much more difficult, but sometimes it pays to upset the status quo.

Take the example of smoking; it is the single biggest entirely preventable cause of ill-health, disability and death in this country. 64,000 people die in England every year from smoking-related illnesses. The burden that this places on the NHS is huge and it costs the country an astonishing £17 billion every year. 75,000 GP appointments are made for smoking related illnesses every month. To put that in context, that’s one hundred appointments every hour.

By creating a smoke-free generation, we will be able to slash the number of deaths from diseases like lung cancer and heart disease. This is a long-term decision that will help us tackle health disparities around the country. It is a simple fact that we cannot level up the health of the nation without drastically reducing smoking rates.

This week has been a turning point. Having taken the action needed to steady the ship, the Prime Minister has set out a series of bold measures. The choices he has taken are not easy ones, but they are the right ones that will allow our country to pursue an ambitious and optimistic future for people, whoever they are and wherever they come from.