The 43-year-old UK leader faces a daunting challenge rallying the Tories to win the election – due to occur by January 2025 at the latest, after several years of damaging scandals and deep economic woes.
The party, in power since 2010, has lagged behind the main Labour opposition in polls throughout Sunak’s tenure.
But signs that the gap could be narrowing have provided a glimmer of hope as the grassroots gathered.
Sunak continued a recent shift into campaign mode, upping attacks on Labour after a flurry of more populist policy announcements and pivots aimed at drawing dividing lines with the main opposition.
The decision to scrap HS2 is unpopular with some Tories.
Andy Street, mayor of the West Midlands region that encompasses Birmingham, is considering quitting in protest.
He reportedly cancelled a planned trip abroad on Wednesday to remain in Manchester for the announcement.
Sunak, who has been premier for nearly a year, characterised the decision as fiscally prudent due to spiralling costs.
“I say to those who backed the project in the first place, the facts have changed and the right thing to do when the facts change is to have the courage to change direction,” he said.
He is trying to portray himself as a leader willing to take tough and sometimes unpopular decisions.
But Sunak faces an uphill task convincing voters to stick with the Tories after 13 years and damaging periods of turmoil under his immediate predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson.
The worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, driven by decades-high inflation and non-existent economic growth, as well as widespread industrial action, all add to the challenge.
Three imminent by-elections could lay bare the scale of the task ahead, with the Conservatives at risk of losing each one despite having won two of them in 2019.
Labour, which starts its annual conference in Liverpool this weekend, has in contrast enjoyed poll leads of more than 20 points this year.
Although several recent surveys show the gap shrinking, the party appears confident of a first return to government since Gordon Brown was prime minister in 2010.
New Savanta polling published on Wednesday suggested its lead had rebounded to 19 points, up five from its last survey.
It also indicated that around a third of 2019 Conservative voters viewed Rishi Sunak as “incompetent”, rising to nearly six in 10 when counting all respondents.
“Although the general rule of British general elections is ‘always bet on the Conservatives’, the reality is that they’ve run out of room,” Richard Carr, an associate professor in public policy and strategy at Anglia Ruskin University, told AFP.
Phase out smoking
Sunak also vowed to introduce legislation to reduce tobacco use saying there was “no safe level of smoking”.
“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,” he said.
His proposal would make it an offence for anyone born on or after 1 January 2009 to be sold tobacco products – effectively raising the smoking age by a year each year until it applies to the whole population, a statement by Sunak’s Downing Street office said.
“This has the potential to phase out smoking in young people almost completely as early as 2040,” it added, calling the move “historic”.
The statement said the government also planned to bring in measures to restrict young people vaping.
This could include restricting disposable vapes and regulating flavours and packaging to reduce their appeal to children, Downing Street added.
British American Tobacco said on Wednesday the UK government’s proposals would be difficult to enforce, and risked creating a new category of “under-age adults”.
“Enforcement of existing tobacco control policies is already under-resourced. An additional ban is only going to make it more difficult to police,” the maker of Lucky Strike and Dunhill cigarettes said in a statement.
‘A man is a man, and a woman is a woman’
Referring to how society should deal with transgender people, he told his party’s annual conference: “we shouldn’t get bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be.
“They can’t, a man is a man and a woman is a woman, that’s just common sense.”
Sunak also promised he would cut taxes once inflation was under control, following mounting concerns from party members about a rise in tax levels since the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I know you want tax cuts. I want them too and we will deliver them. But the best tax cut we can give people right now is to halve inflation and ease the cost of living,” Sunak said.
Throughout this year, Sunak and his finance minister Jeremy Hunt have said their priority is to halve inflation – which hit a 41-year high of 11.1 per cent in October 2022 – and that tax cuts risked delaying this.
However, many party members are impatient for tax cuts ahead of a national election.
On Friday, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a non-partisan think tank, said tax revenue was likely to represent 37 per cent of annual economic output at the time of the next election, up from 33 per cent at the time of the last election in December 2019.
This would be Britain’s highest tax rate since at least the 1950s, although below most other similar European economies.
Hunt said on Monday that he would freeze the number of civil servants, which rose during the pandemic, after ruling out near-term tax cuts in a newspaper interview published on Saturday.
Inflation was 6.7 per cent in August, and the Bank of England forecasts it will fall to 4.9 per cent in the final quarter of next year and reach its 2 per cent target in the second half of 2025.
Hunt will present updated economic forecasts and budget plans on November 22.