Rishi Sunak waited more than two months before giving his first big domestic policy speech as prime minister, and when it finally came he chose a venue that embodied the kind of Britain he would like to build.
Plexal, a self-proclaimed “innovation ecosystem solving technology challenges”, features artificial grass, primary colours and airy views over east London’s Olympic Park, now taking shape as a major tech hub.
Yet Sunak, in his speech, acknowledged that before he can “change our country’s character” and build an innovation nation, he first faces the more prosaic task of digging the UK out of a deep hole.
He clearly sees his premiership in two parts: the first involves reviving the country’s tattered economy and public services, somehow defying the odds and making the Conservatives competitive in an expected 2024 election.
The second phase is what US president George HW Bush called “the vision thing”: a post-election reimagining of the UK as “a beacon of science, technology and enterprise”, inhabited by a newly numerate populace.
It is far from clear whether Sunak, who has a home in Santa Monica and studied alongside the world’s tech pioneers at Stanford, will have a chance to implement the second part of his plan.
The first part of his speech set out the five measures by which he hopes the public will judge him at the next election: halving inflation, growing the economy, cutting public debt, reducing NHS waiting times and tackling illegal migration.
The public may use other measures to judge Sunak, such as whether the country is functioning. Labour sniffed that his five promises were things that were happening anyway and were “so easy it would be difficult not to achieve them”.
The prime minister recognised his first challenge is to address the NHS crisis, including resolving strikes by nurses and ambulance workers that enjoy considerable public support.
“In the coming days we will update you on the government’s next steps,” said Sunak. Allies explained he was referring to a carrot-and-stick approach to the public sector pay disputes.
The first element would be the publication of new anti-strike laws, making it harder for public sector workers to cause massive disruption to key services, but the second was much more conciliatory.
Sunak promised a “reasonable dialogue” with trade unions, and his colleagues said the prime minister hopes the NHS disputes over this year’s pay award can be settled by offering nurses and ambulance staff a better deal next year.
“He wants discussions on what is fair and reasonable for next year,” said one Sunak ally, referring to a pay round that will take effect from April 2023.
Sunak wants ministers to discuss with unions the ground rules for next year’s independent pay review bodies before formal submissions are made — a potential olive branch.
Dealing with the strikes is only one item on a daunting list of problems facing Sunak.
The crisis in the NHS is not susceptible to quick fixes, while Sunak’s promise to “stop the boats” carrying people across the English Channel may turn out to be the hardest of his five promises to meet.
However Sunak hopes that falling inflation and a temporary respite in wholesale gas prices will help to restore economic growth well before the election, allowing him to claim the country is on the right track.
But to where? One leading manufacturer said after Sunak’s speech: “Did you notice he didn’t mention making things?” Another business leader concurred that the prime minister was not overly interested in industry.
Sunak argued that innovation, the big theme of the second part of his speech, is all about wealth creation.
“The change we need is to put innovation at the heart of everything we do,” he said. “New jobs are created by innovation, people’s wages increased by innovation, the cost of goods and services reduced by innovation, and major challenges like energy security and net zero will be solved by innovation.”
Sunak regards his plan to ensure all young people in England receive some kind of mathematics education until the age of 18 as a key part of his innovation revolution.
The subtext of Sunak’s speech was that this is the kind of thing he wants to do once he has finished clearing up the mess he inherited — and if he can overcome dismal poll ratings and win the next election.
Nadine Dorries, a former Tory cabinet minister and close ally of ex-prime minister Boris Johnson, was scathing of Sunak’s programme and mocked his plan “to teach maths for longer with teachers we don’t yet even have”.
“Three years of a progressive Tory government being washed down the drain,” she said on Twitter, claiming that Sunak was neglecting retail-friendly policies such as tackling regional inequalities.
Dorries also claimed Sunak was going to abandon a promised “bonfire of EU legislation”, although the prime minister insisted he would use Brexit “freedoms” to create more agile rules “whether it’s in artificial intelligence, whether it’s in quantum, whether it’s in life sciences or fintech”.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said: “This do-nothing prime minister is too weak to stand up to his party or vested interests. That means that from housing and planning laws to closing tax avoidance loopholes, he can’t take the big decisions to put the country first.
“For weeks this speech was hyped up as his big vision — now he’s delivered it, the country is entitled to ask ‘Is that it?’”