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The UK can ill-afford a year of drift in government

Amid the expected by-election fallout, Rishi Sunak must start to plan long-term.

Rishi Sunak launching the government's new legislation on migrant channel crossings at a press conference in Downing Street.
Two by-election defeats have piled pressure on the prime minister.

Bruising by-election results have put pressure on Rishi Sunak to come up with an instant response, but Catherine Haddon says the prime minister also needs to factor in long-term thinking to avoid a year of government inertia

The dust is yet to settle on a trio of dramatic by-elections, with results being analysed for what they might reveal about the looming general election.

The Conservatives saw huge majorities overturned in two very different seats: Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome, losing to both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Even with the close Uxbridge win, Rishi Sunak will still likely face calls for resets, reshuffles and changes of direction. The prime minister has been quick to insist that the results show the general election is not a “done deal” and that he needs to “double down” on his five-pledge plan.

But there are still, potentially, another 18 months before that vote needs to be held. For a prime minister whose first task was to get his discombobulated party back on some sort of even keel, Sunak now faces a series of delicate balancing acts.

September on will feel like an election campaign

The autumn party conferences will be the first big chance for Sunak’s Conservative Party to set out its vision for the next year.

After the tumultuous premierships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, Sunak has so far been focused on fixing the mess and restoring confidence in the government’s competence. His five pledge approach was part of that strategy, and an essential step ahead of setting out manifesto promises. At some point soon, however, Sunak needs to look beyond the immediate problems. His pledges are about delivery in the short term, but he needs a vision for the long term to explain what his government is there to do – whether making the case for a further term of office, or deciding what legacy he wants to leave for his premiership.

Already the evidence suggests that the prime minister’s public focus is firmly on the election. As Sunak told the 1922 Committee of his backbench MPs: “When we come back in September we have a choice to make… Do we come together and throw everything at winning the next election or not. I’ve made my choice, I’m all in with you to win.”

But what does that mean for governing? Does it provide ministers and the wider civil service with sufficiently clear priorities to push ahead in the remaining time? Or does it add to the sense that the long election campaign will distract minds away from the everyday toil needed to get things done in government?

A prime minister once again holds the card of choosing the date of elections, and Sunak will be reluctant to play it early. But a campaigning mindset will take hold if a May 2024 election remains on the table. There may be good political reasons for keeping the ambiguity but, as Gordon Brown found, the distraction of speculation can be as destabilising as deciding against an early election. Sunak must decide whether he can get more out of his party and his government if he makes that call earlier rather than leave the question hanging.

What will the next parliamentary session bring?

There will be a King’s speech on 7 November (the first since May 2022). This means a new parliamentary session and the government setting out its legislative agenda for what most assume will be the final session before an election. Again, Sunak faces a balancing act.

If the King’s speech reveals lots of new bold ideas that are unachievable in the time remaining then it risks compounding perceptions of a failure to deliver. If it doesn’t include enough of substance then it risks looking like a government bereft of fresh ideas. But practicalities also matter. Just as there were under Boris Johnson, there have been complaints about a lack of legislation and an under-used House of Commons. Sunak’s most recent problems have been about the timetabling: lots of controversial bills, not least the Illegal Migration Bill, have been stuck in the House of Lords. To get policies through Sunak has had to wait for that House – which controls its own timetable – to take its time.

Sequencing legislation and thinking about what needs to come first is an issue for any government. In the final year before an election you might not win, it becomes an even more pressing concern.

A reshuffle risks compounding rather than solving these problems

A reshuffle now seems certain but may not take place until the autumn. It will make headlines. It will give Sunak some sense of control. And it might generate a sense of momentum. But it also carries risks. Reshuffles may seem to make great politics but they can also make for really bad government.

Prime ministers need ministers to stay in post long enough to implement policies. At the same time, removing people from their jobs also creates more enemies. And constantly threatening reshuffles also has diminishing returns. Those waiting lose patience, and those being threatened stop caring. As Whitehall speculates it can also slow down. Civil servants are already talking about a lack of activity and focus. Sunak doesn’t just have to motivate his own team, he has to motivate his whole government.

The balancing acts Sunak faces – when to reshuffle, how much ambition to show, and whether to focus on the longer-term or the immediate – are not easy. Sunak has, from his leadership campaign and the earliest decisions of his premiership, shown he is capable of putting the national interest above quick political wins. His focus on technology and apparent interest in leading on AI suggest he has his own policy concerns and ambitions. But there are a huge range of areas which require a long-term perspective, with a spending review for departments to come. Public services will suffer further if departments’ strategies are too short-term.

The reality is the country can ill-afford a year lost to government inertia. Policies don’t just matter for what can achieved in the next year, but for planning for 2025 and beyond. Ministers in post now may have to accept that another minister, even one from another party, will be the one who see plans to their fruition. The question for any minister, and for any prime minister too, is whether a completed project, a mission accomplished, or an implemented policy is only worth it if comes with personal triumph. There is enough time left before the next election for Sunak to focus on the long-term interests of the country, whether it wins him the election or not. Sunak’s challenge, regardless of the by-elections, is to find a balance that works.

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