LONDON — Rishi Sunak, Britain’s prime minister, has a plan for the new year. In a speech in early January, he set out an agenda to resuscitate the country and save the Conservative Party, now in free fall. “We will halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut waiting lists and stop the boats,” he intoned.
You’d be forgiven for hearing a note of desperation. Mr. Sunak, after all, entered office with a mountain to climb. The cost-of-living crisis is just the start: Wherever you turn, strife seems to rise to meet you. To name but a few, there’s the health care crisis, the housing crisis (both ownership and rental), the education crisis, the child care crisis, the transport crisis, the climate crisis and, not least, the constitutional crisis threatening the end of the union with Scotland. In Britain, it’s far easier to document what isn’t teetering on the brink of collapse.
Even a great statesman would need more than three months to make headway on such deep-rooted social ills. But the early signs are not good. Far from fulfilling his promise to bring “stability and unity” to both the country and his party, the prime minister has done the opposite. A new era may have begun, but it’s not going well.
For a start, Mr. Sunak has done little to alter his reputation as a cautious technocrat. Plans for the economy, unveiled in November, announced major spending cuts but delayed the bulk of them until 2025. Balancing between further immiserating the public and appeasing the markets whose ire brought Liz Truss’s premiership to such a dramatic end, it wasn’t a death blow to the nation’s economy. But it merely maintains a failing system.
And the situation is dire. British households are in the midst of the biggest fall in living standards since the 1950s, yet Mr. Sunak seems to have little idea of how to reverse it. Vague promises to bring down inflation do little to bring actual improvement to people’s lives. Add a dubious effort to coax recent retirees back into work and plans to deregulate the City of London, some of which have already been abandoned, and the overall impression is of a leader both misfiring and weak.
It doesn’t help that Mr. Sunak began his tenure with unnecessary missteps, not least the reappointment of Suella Braverman as home secretary less than a week after she was sacked for a serious security breach. Ms. Braverman’s fixation on deepening an already inhumanely hostile environment for migrants clearly proved more persuasive than her track record of incompetence, gaffes and sheer ignorance. The subsequent bungled handling of a bullying scandal, where Mr. Sunak refused to dismiss a cabinet member accused of serial misconduct, further frayed the prime minister’s reputation almost before he’d begun.
Struggling to manage his party, Mr. Sunak has abandoned key policies in response to internal pressure. In December, for example, the government scrapped plans to introduce sorely needed mandatory home-construction targets for local councils, saving Mr. Sunak from a backbench rebellion. To head off another, the prime minister relaxed a ban on onshore wind farms that he’d previously supported.
Yet when it comes to his biggest battles, Mr. Sunak has already shown a penchant for inflexibility rather than negotiation. In the face of the biggest wave of public sector strikes in a generation, the prime minister’s refusal to hammer out deals with union bosses has seen him scorned as “missing in action.” Instead, Mr. Sunak has unveiled an assault on the right to strike, introducing new laws that would require “minimum service levels” in key services and leave unions liable for legal action if they are not met.
It’s an approach that puts him further at odds with public opinion, where support for striking public sector workers is high. It also betrays a lack of political common sense. Even Margaret Thatcher handed public sector workers a 25 percent pay rise upon her arrival in office in 1979, to end rolling strike action. Discontent with Mr. Sunak’s approach has earned him a rare rebuke from the monarchy. The freshly minted King Charles III used his Christmas Day address to praise the “health and social care professionals and teachers and indeed all those working in public service.”
Mr. Sunak’s heavy-handedness could even hasten the end of the United Kingdom. A fight over a new gender recognition bill passed by the Scottish government, which would make it easier for trans people to change their legal gender, snowballed into a constitutional catastrophe after Mr. Sunak used a veto to block the law. It was the first time the veto had been employed since it was established in 1998, a decision taken without robust justification. Scotland’s first minister vowed to “vigorously defend” the bill in court, potentially pouring gasoline on an already rising independence movement.
After the tumult of 2022, in which Britain became a byword for political and economic malfunction, many hoped Mr. Sunak would be a safe pair of hands. The first three months of his tenure, though, have been a disappointment. For Mr. Sunak, facing an unhappy country, a restive party and an opposition leading in the polls, it looks like a long year ahead.
Moya Lothian-McLean (@mlothianmclean) is a contributing editor at Novara Media and a freelance journalist.
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