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Can Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer meet their promises?

With a general election expected in 2024, Emma Norris assesses the prime minister’s and leader of the opposition’s priorities

Rishi Sunak speaking at the Scottish Conservative Party Conference.
Rishi Sunak set out five pledges to be judged against at the next election.

At the start of the year, Rishi Sunak set out five pledges that he wanted to define his premiership. Around the same time, Keir Starmer announced the five “missions” designed to show voters the long-term direction of any future Labour government. As we approach the summer recess, Emma Norris looks at how the promises of both leaders have fared.

The number of flagship priorities is largely where similarities between Sunak’s pledges and  Starmer’s missions end. For his five, the prime minister focused on immediate problems, while the Labour leader set out long-term goals. The different approaches, and timescales, made sense when they were first unveiled. As parliament rises for the summer recess, however, there is pressure on Sunak to show progress, and on Starmer to provide more details.

Short-term pledges versus long-term missions

Sunak’s pledges initially met with a lukewarm response, criticised both for a lack of vision and for describing existing forecasts and policies rather than setting out a long term-agenda. But given an impending election, the difficult economic situation and faltering public services, a near-term focus was a more credible approach, and an essential step ahead of issuing any future manifesto promises.

At the other end of scale, in February Starmer set out five very high-level “missions” and followed each with individual launches – culminating in a launch for the final mission, on opportunity, in early July. As with Sunak, the time scale made sense. Starmer is not prime minister, so emphasising long-term goals rather than diving into immediate problems is the right approach. This gives voters a sense of what Labour wants to achieve, and setting out goals which surely require multiple parliaments to realise is way to project confidence. But there is only so long Starmer can avoid talking about how problems today affect his ability to deliver tomorrow.

Sunak’s pledges are faltering – but some are still within reach

If Sunak’s pledges seemed low on ambition in January, half a year on they seem rather more complicated. Halving inflation looked like the safest bet, with forecasters predicting a sharp reduction beginning in spring. But inflation has proved to be more stubborn in the UK and Sunak in nay case has few levers to make an impact in the short term: whether this pledge is met has more to do with luck than government policy. While the latest data is a step in the right direction, Sunak will have his fingers crossed ahead of each month's data release.

On his pledge to get the economy growing and create better paid jobs, as of June 250,000 more people were in work than in the previous quarter, and the definition of the pledge means it will be met if there just is 0.1% GDP growth in the final quarter of this year. The wording of the health pledge – to reduce NHS waiting lists – also gives Sunak a good chance of delivering: waiting lists must fall, but with no specified deadline or level against which the fall is measured. With ongoing industrial action by junior doctors and consultants, the waiting list at the end of the parliament will almost certainly be higher than it was before the pandemic, and could be higher than when Sunak made his promise – though it might have started to fall from its current record high. His promise on small boats, to pass legislation, has been kept. But some voters might remember the promise by its slogan of 'stop the boats' before accepting the more tightly defined but less catchy 'pass a bill'.

The pledges were not a bold vision, but they were designed to be delivered in full. This would allow Sunak to send a clear statement that he keeps his promises and, if he meets them, would give the prime minister a record of delivery to take into the next election. But even with quite generously worded promises, progress so far suggests that record might end up looking decidedly patchy.

Starmer set an ambitious vision – but his ability to deliver on it is unclear

Starmer started the year by setting out five high-level missions for government and has spent the months since launching each one individually with more detail – giving the opportunity for closer analysis. The promise to get the UK’s growth rate to the highest sustained level in the G7 is tough considering where the UK is now, and especially so given Starmer has ruled out using some major levers, like changing the trading relationship with EU. A zero-carbon electricity system by 2030, five years before the government’s aim, is the most clearly defined of Labour’s targets. The party was criticised for changes to £28bn a year promise on green investment as part of this mission, but this was sensible – one of the biggest delivery challenges will be finding projects to spend it on fast enough.

On ‘building an NHS fit for the future’ – this mission arguably fails to meet the scale of change necessary to turn things around. Starmer has announced a set of targets they can be measured against, including a return to the 4-hour wait at A&E and a series of individual policies including expanding opportunities for self-referral. But this mission hasn’t grasped some of the big questions our own work has emphasised: how to incentivise senior staff to stay in the NHS, and how and where Labour will rectify the historic underinvestment in capital that has badly damaged productivity.

The final mission, on opportunity, was supposed to tie all five together, but despite the promises to shatter the ‘class ceiling’ the policies offered fall short of the overall vision – retention payments for teachers and tweaked offers on school improvement are sensible but not at the scale needed to tackle deeply embedded inequality. Labour’s missions need investment at a commensurate level, whether that comes from reforming services, stopping other projects or programmes, or raising or borrowing more money. Labour is refusing to be drawn on spending commitments, both for political reasons and because they are concerned about the state of the finances that they might inherit. But while caution is understandable, for these missions to be credible Labour will need to address the tension between a desire for ambition and reluctance to invest.

With an election looming Sunak – and Starmer – should hope for signs of progress

For now, it is only Sunak who must worry about delivering what he has promised. But building a foundation for a future government rests on putting out today’s fires, and whoever wins the next general election will be reliant on many of Sunak’s promises being kept and in bringing some stability to the economy. Starmer might find his chances in the polling booth best served by Sunak missing some of his goals, but his chances for delivering on his own may well depend on Sunak’s success.  

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