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Rishi Sunak's five promises duck big challenges for government

Dr Hannah White argues that the PM has set himself a deliberately low bar – while ducking challenges that need addressing.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during his first major domestic speech of 2023 at Plexal, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London
Prime minister Rishi Sunak during his first major domestic speech of 2023 at Plexal, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London.

In his first major speech as PM, Rishi Sunak has said he wants to be judged on his success in delivering against the “people’s priorities”. Hannah White argues that the PM has set himself a deliberately low bar – while ducking challenges that need addressing

Rishi Sunak’s speech was not a government reset or rebranding – after 12 years in power, and with a maximum of two until the general election, he is aware there is neither the time nor the appetite among his Conservative Party colleagues for such reinvention. Instead the speech was a recognition from Sunak that his premiership needs to be more than just a reassuring technocratic alternative to Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, and that his ministers and civil servants need clarity and direction about what he wants to achieve. The crucial test will be whether the public see it as an adequate response to what many are experiencing as a period of extreme hardship. 

Sunak’s first major speech as PM represents the outcome of a process that has been underway since he began his premiership ten weeks ago, to review, retain or ditch the various promises he and his predecessors have made to the electorate – at the 2019 election, during the 2022 leadership campaign and in the course of two previous premierships. He has narrowed down his government’s five priorities to: halving inflation; growing the economy; reducing national debt and NHS waiting lists; and introducing new laws to stop small boats. The electorate may or may not accede to his request to judge his premiership primarily on these five issues, but the prioritisation is sensible: firm priority setting will give the PM the best chances of organising the government machine to deliver.   

Sunak’s five promises are ones he expects to achieve  

But whilst prioritisation is sensible, the PM has set himself a relatively easy task: he has chosen to make five promises which he expects to be achievable – on some measure – before the next election. Economists universally expect inflation to fall in 2023 and commentators have already noted that the government’s success in achieving the first three promises will depend on the measures and timescales which ministers choose. The PM noted in response to journalists’ questions that NHS waiting lists are already reducing, and a promise to introduce laws to stop small boats is very different to a target to actually reduce their number – it is doubtful whether illegal immigration is a problem susceptible to a simple legal solution.    

In making promises he knows he should be able to deliver, Sunak will be confident of going to the electorate with a track record of achievement – but only on his own terms. 

Sunak’s speech was vague on other problems which the public wants to see solved 

On the other hand, some of the more complex problems facing the government – which might reasonably be thought to also be ‘the people’s priorities’ and which successive governments have failed to address – did not make it into Sunak’s personal scorecard.  

For the electorate, the impact of rolling strikes is simply the bitter icing on the unpalatable cake of falling standards and reduced availability of public services – not just in the NHS but across social care, criminal justice and education too. And the impact of strikes is not just on voters but on the wider UK economy – already forecast to be entering the worst and longest recession in the G7. Resolving the pay claims of public sector workers in a way which balances affordability for taxpayers against the need to allow public services to recruit and retain staff is a difficult challenge for government. Yet there was little in Sunak’s speech about strikes, save a promise at the start to provide an ‘update on next steps’ shortly. There was little on the other issues driving the crises in public services either – such as productivity challenges and demographic changes. Short-term ideas that could ease the current crisis emerged only in response to journalists’ questions.  

Equally, while the issue of elevated energy costs may have receded from the headlines now, that will soon change. Businesses and households have adjusted to the emergency support packages provided by government for this winter. But, absent an unexpected resolution of the Ukraine war reducing energy costs, the unaffordable cost of energy is likely to come roaring back up the political agenda in the Spring, or as soon as the government clarifies what level of ongoing support different parts of society and the economy can expect. Meanwhile Sunak has consistently failed to address the climate crisis which is the other side of the energy coin. And for the people of Northern Ireland, the absence of government while the protocol remains unresolved is having real, daily consequences. 

Sunak’s longer-term vision for the UK will require less headline-worthy changes too  

Of course, Sunak's speech was never going to focus on lower profile problems which apparently have little impact on people's day to day lives, but that doesn't not mean he shouldn't use his premiership to fix them – if he is serious about delivering his longer-term vision for the UK. 

That includes restoring trust within government – rebuilding relationships and making good on his promise to lead a government of integrity and professionalism. It means strengthening and clarifying the responsibilities of ministers and civil servants so they can be held to account for delivering the government’s priorities, and investing in the capability of the civil service to make and deliver policy. It means simplifying the funding of local and devolved government to give local leaders – including the new cadre of metro-mayors – the flexibility and certainty to invest effectively in their areas. And much more besides. 

Sunak may hope to be judged on the scorecard he has set out for himself. But if he wants to lay the groundwork for success in a second term after the next election, he must address the priorities that remain invisible to the public too.  

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