This week, the Prime Minister made his set piece speech setting out his policy agenda for 2023, following one of the most tumultuous years for British politics in decades. Though he has steadied the ship following the chaotic reigns of Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, the PM is still at the helm of a parliamentary party that has a penchant for regicide, as he enters 2023 with more problems than solutions.
Sunak has attempted to regain control of the political narrative by setting out five pledges (in a style not dissimilar to Blair) to resolve the issues facing our country:
1. Halving inflation this year to ease the cost of living and give people financial security.
2. Growing the economy to create better-paid jobs and opportunities, particularly in tech, innovation, and science fields.
3. Decreasing national debt to secure the future of public services.
4. Easing NHS waiting lists so people can get the care they need more quickly.
5. Passing new laws to stop small boats crossing the English Channel, making sure that those who migrate illegally are detained and swiftly removed.
Whilst the PM has been focused on unity, and has put forward an uncontroversial agenda, it is still not clear whether this will quench the thirst Tory backbenchers have for rebellions. The PM needs to establish authority and show the public that this Government can solve major issues.
The PM has played it relatively safe in ‘doing what is necessary’, rather than bringing forward his own policies for the economy. Though his acknowledgement of accountability for the delivery of the five pledges was a nice touch, there was nothing revolutionary in his speech. Sunak’s focus on the NHS was evident, but he outlined that there wouldn’t be structural reforms; instead, more of a focus on utilising all available to make services better. This does though raise the question of how feasible this will be – particularly with the ongoing strikes.
Whilst Sunak is looking to define his own personal political mission, the reality is that this Government will continue to be buffeted by events, both economic and geopolitical. He will, however, hope that the bones of his policy agenda for 2023 will assist in turning the tide.
Yet many will question this speech’s lack of ‘big picture’ ideas and forward planning to drive economic growth and to combat public enemy number one: inflation. We still know relatively little about what Sunak represents as a PM beyond sensible economic policy and a commitment to dealing with ‘of-the-moment’ crises.
Ultimately, any policy or pledge that he sets out just drives towards the main priority of the PM’s agenda – improving the Conservative Party’s electoral image. The Opposition continues to ride high, and what Rishi Sunak needs to do is demonstrate that he can lead the country and strengthen the UK’s resilience in the face of crises – before it’s too late.
Here’s our take on Sunak’s promises:
Families across Britain have been warned to prepare for a very economically challenging year, with the situation due to get worse before it gets better. Sunak and Hunt have promised to be compassionate, and households will continue to receive automatic cost-of-living payments until April 2024.
Sunak also promised to half inflation this year, to grow the economy, and to make sure Britain’s national debt is falling. However, the pledge on inflation being halved this year reflects existing forecasts from the Bank of England, while promises to grow the economy and see the national debt fall do not have a timeframe attached, meaning that in reality, they are modest ambitions.
As a former Chancellor himself, Sunak will be keen to cement his position as a ‘safe pair of hands’ when it comes to the economy, and these promises certainly reflect that ambition.
The Government announced the controversial Rwanda policy in April 2022 and since then, it has been subject to legal challenge in the European Convention of Human Rights.
Sunak now faces pressure from his own MPs to leave the ECHR in order to press ahead with the plans, but it is unlikely that any legislation set out with this aim would pass a vote in the House of Commons even if Sunak did introduce it.
The Prime Minister knows that illegal immigration is an important issue for many voters. This is perhaps why he has identified it as one of his key priorities and vowed to tackle the immigration backlog by the end of the year and introduce legislation on small boat crossings over the Channel.
However, when he was asked to put a clear target on stopping small boats crossings, Sunak refrained from giving an answer. The British public will now be watching closely to see if he is able to deliver on this issue which many will feel his predecessors failed on.
Sunak has been clear that while he believes in the right to strike, this must be balanced with the right of the public to be able to live without significant disruption.
On that note, we can expect to see a Bill containing proposals for minimum service levels during strikes in public services enter the House of Commons in the early part of this year.
This is not a decision that Sunak will take without careful consideration. Polls suggest that the public support strikes amongst the emergency services and while he might excuse this as being the result of ‘misinformation’, he cannot afford to lose any more public support while his Party sits so low in opinion polls.
Education has long been reported as one of Sunak’s key policy priorities and he described it during the leadership campaign as the ‘silver bullet’. On Wednesday, he unveiled a new education pledge to ensure that children across the UK will continue to learn some form of mathematics until they are 18 years old. He added that the Government will be looking at ways to encourage the public to stop seeing education as something that ends at 18, by offering more technical education, lifelong learning, and apprenticeships.
Sunak’s critics have been hot on the tails of the compulsory mathematics announcement, with many asking how the Government plans to deliver this promise while schools across the country report striking staffing shortages. Meanwhile, the Labour Party accused the government of missing its target for new maths teachers “every year since 2012”.
Sunak promised to take personal charge of the NHS crisis and has said that he and the government are taking urgent action to work out future plans for A&E and ambulances, free up beds, and put more money into social care. Reducing waiting times and ensuring people get the care they need also made up one of his five key promises for this Parliament.
We can expect more detail on Sunak’s plans to tackle the ongoing issues with the NHS to be unveiled shortly.
Bhav Popat and Callum Murphy, Senior Account Executives (Public Affairs team)
FleishmanHillard UK’s Public Affairs team offer clients a team with first-hand experience of government, parliament, the civil service, local government and campaigning; rich insight and contacts across the political spectrum, and extensive policy knowledge and consulting excellence.
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November 20, 2023
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