Rishi Sunak in a photo from 2020, when he was part of Boris Johnson’s government (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
The British Prime Minister appears to be interested in the votes of the more conservative electorate, even though the measures adopted last year were already very radical
Rishi Sunak became Conservative leader and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom almost a year ago, at a particularly complex and chaotic time for his party and British politics generally. After a year in office, several British newspapers have tried to provide an initial assessment of his government.
Sunak took over in October 2022 from Liz Truss, whose term lasted just 49 days and was marked by mistakes, controversy and a financial crisis. Truss, in turn, had become leader of the Conservatives following Boris Johnson’s resignation as prime minister, which had become inevitable after a series of scandals that also led to him losing control of the party. Sunak, who had been defeated by Truss a few months earlier, was at this point an almost mandatory election: his first aim was to “normalise” the situation, the second and more complex aim was to restore voters’ confidence in the party , which had never been so low recently. .
Since taking office, Sunak has partially achieved the first goal, namely a more traditional economic policy than Truss, but has failed to strengthen the Conservative consensus; The second goal is actually still a long way off. The next elections must take place by January 2025 and are most likely to be organized in autumn 2024, and in the polls the Conservative Party is well behind the Labor Party. The latter are estimated at around 45 percent of the vote, the governing party at 25, a further decline (by a few points) after the summer.
Since January, to regain credibility and votes, Sunak has focused on some clear goals with five promises: to boost the economy, which has been collapsing for years, and to block the boats of asylum seekers trying to reach British shores from France, reducing the Inflation, national debt and waiting times for access to health care. Successes have been limited and the prospect of defeat in the next elections is becoming ever more pressing. Many within the Conservative party are calling for more “bolder” activities from the Prime Minister and an even more “identity-based” approach.
Sunak has governed with an already very right-wing approach, and his government still includes some of the most controversial figures from the previous government, including Home Secretary Suella Braverman. The Economist wrote that Sunak is “by far the most right-wing Conservative prime minister since Margaret Thatcher.” However, this is not always noticed. Centrists have welcomed the rise of the hard-working Sunak, who confuses competence with liberalism. They assumed he was one of them, and not just based on his opinions about his age, manners, and background.”
The Sunak government has taken several radical decisions, including very strict measures in dealing with migrants and in the rights of the LGBTQ+ community: his government recently blocked a Scottish law that would have allowed transgender people to self-certify sex, without complex go through bureaucratic processes. Sunak is a staunch supporter of Brexit and has so far taken a very rigid and traditional approach to economic issues, close to that of Margaret Thatcher.
The recent decision to postpone some deadlines that the United Kingdom had imposed on itself to combat climate change also fits into this context. The decision concerns the ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars and the heating of houses with fossil fuels: both have been postponed to 2035. The decision was described by British newspapers as a “complete change of course” on the issue and positioned the government and the Conservatives in clear contrast to the Labor Party, but also to the policies of previous prime ministers. It was criticized by members of the Conservative Party and even some car manufacturers, but it was probably made to appeal to the more radical part of the electorate.
Minister Braverman summarized the new approach: “We have no intention of saving the planet by bankrupting the British people.”
Three of the promises Sunak made in January were on economic issues. In the last quarter, the British economy grew by 0.2 percent, a result that was a positive surprise; In the last quarter, GDP was also 0.6 percentage points higher than before the pandemic (i.e. compared to the last quarter of 2019), after initially being 1.2 percent lower.
Sunak also said he wanted to reduce Britain’s national debt, which in June exceeded the level of GDP for the first time since 1961 and stood at around 3,000 billion euros. Things are looking better for inflation, which reached 10.7 percent in December 2022 and Sunak had promised to halve it within a year: in August it was 6.7 percent on an annual basis, a sharp decline from 8.7 percent in May. However, the government’s merits in this area are controversial and controversial, as economist Wolfgang Münchau pointed out: “Everyone knows that the government does not control inflation. It is as absurd for a Prime Minister to promise a cut as to declare that his aim is a victory for England at the 2024 European Football Championship.”
Sunak then identified two further areas requiring immediate intervention: public health and tackling irregular immigration.
In the UK, the health system crisis – a problem common across much of Western Europe – is particularly serious. There are currently 7.6 million people waiting for routine hospital treatment (tests, operations), the highest since 2007 and higher than at the start of 2023. The Sunak government has made no progress in this area. Internal NHS regulations set a target of treating 92 per cent of patients within 18 weeks, which was roughly possible between 2010 and 2018.
However, the number collapsed after the pandemic as non-urgent treatments were postponed. Today, the public health system appears unable to catch up: currently only 58 percent of patients are treated within 18 weeks. Around 400,000 people have been waiting for hospital treatment for over 52 weeks, almost a year.
Government action in recent months has focused heavily on adopting new laws and regulations to manage and stop irregular immigration to the UK.
In July, the British Parliament passed the Illegal Migration Act, which provided for the detention and transfer of migrants who had entered the UK “illegally”. The plan envisaged that migrants would be transferred to Rwanda or another “safe” state until a decision was made about granting refugee status. In return, Rwanda would have received payment for looking after the migrants, but the British appeal court declared the plan illegal. The Sunak government has appealed, but to date the methods of implementing the new law are neither finalized nor clear.
Despite the government’s measures, landings on British shores have not fallen significantly: around 23,500 migrants arrived in the UK in mid-September, just a few fewer than in the same period in 2022, the last year with the largest number of arrivals by sea. 90 percent of migrants landed in 2022 had applied for refugee status, but only 3 percent of applications were reviewed. 83 percent of those submitted after 2018 are still waiting for a response.
Even on an issue so central to the majority’s rhetoric, the government’s approach was as radical in its intentions as it was ineffective in its results: a problem that inevitably affects the prime minister’s approval ratings. On the one hand, Sunak can “scare” the moderate electorate, but on the other hand, he does not satisfy the more radical voters. Recent decisions on environmental issues and the announcement of new “long-term measures” appear to suggest that Sunak and the Conservative Party have decided to “bet” on a further shift towards radical and identity-related issues to make up for the significant deficit in the polls.
Continue with the post