LONDON – UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made five promises to the British public – and wants voters to judge his government on whether those pledges are met. “No tricks, no ambiguity – we’re either delivering for you or we’re not,” Mr Sunak said in London in his first speech of the year.
With Britain facing a series of crises ranging from high inflation to low economic growth by way of a crumbling National Health Service, there is much to do. Yet several of the pledges appear in line with previously announced policies or independent forecasts.
So just how challenging is Mr Sunak’s homework?
What he said: “First, we will halve inflation this year to ease the cost of living and give people financial security.”
This ought to be fairly simple to meet, even if the government does not directly control inflation (that’s the Bank of England’s job). The independent fiscal watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), forecasts inflation to fall to 3.8 per cent by the end of this year, from a high of 11.1 per cent in 2022.
What happens to energy prices will determine whether the target is hit – and they are already lower than expected. If energy prices rocket again, Mr Sunak will be able to claim the problem was out of his hands.
What he said: “Second, we will grow the economy, creating better-paid jobs and opportunity right across the country.”
The OBR sees the economy in recession for 2023 as a whole, but just growing again in the final quarter before expanding more rapidly across 2024. Under questioning, Mr Sunak said he wants growth this year – effectively verbalising the OBR numbers.
The OBR November forecast was completed at a particularly bleak point in the economic cycle and the government is expected to unveil some growth policies in the March budget that may help boost the short-term outlook. But it is a more stretching target than the inflation one.
What he said: “Third, we will make sure our national debt is falling so that we can secure the future of public services.”
Mr Sunak did not set a target date for debt to be falling as a share of GDP beyond talking about the “medium term”. That presumably means 2027-28, which is the government’s stated deadline. On that basis, the OBR has him meeting the goal with £9 billion (S$14.6 billion) to spare.
Since the forecast was published, improvements in government borrowing costs have given Mr Sunak about £10 billion of extra headroom. But the pressures on public spending are perennial.
Fixing the NHS
What he said: “Fourth, NHS waiting lists will fall and people will get the care they need more quickly.”
The lack of detail or timescale gives him ample room to claim victory here. NHS treatment backlogs are at a record 7.2 million and money has been committed in the short term to bring those down. The extra £3.3 billion in each of the next two years ought to succeed in reducing the urgent waiting-list crisis.
After 2025, the deadline for the next election, one-off payments end and budgets are cut. As Mr Sunak has asked to be judged on this promise by the electorate, it looks like he is doing everything possible to ensure it happens before then – even if cuts mean waiting lists spiking up again afterwards.
Dealing with small boats
What he said: “Fifth, we will pass new laws to stop small boats, making sure that if you come to this country illegally, you are detained and swiftly removed.”
Pledging to pass a law would appear to be as simple a promise as a politician could make. It’s their day job, after all. But given the unruly state off his Tory party and the trouble the government had getting its Rwanda deportation policy through the courts, that may be harder than first appears.
Even as small-boat crossings remain high, there has been progress. The government signed an agreement with France to curb migrant crossings and had its Rwanda plan upheld in the High Court just before Christmas. BLOOMBERG