LONDON — With Britain’s healthcare system and economy in grave jeopardy, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday laid out a series of pledges to restore the country’s prosperity and well-being, putting his own political future on the line by challenging the British to retain it. to the account.
Mr. Sunak’s promises, delivered in a sweeping speech that echoed a State of the Union address by an American president, represented his effort to regain momentum after a period in which he replaced a discredited predecessor, Liz Truss, and cleaned up after her calamitous foray into the drip economy.
“No tricks, no ambiguities,” Sunak told a polite audience in east London. “Either we’re delivering for you or we’re not.”
Among the pledges, the prime minister said he would cut inflation in half, revive the economy and reduce waiting times in emergency rooms – ambitious goals for a government that has so far been largely held hostage to a series of events. disturbing.
But some of Britain’s most pressing problems, like its overwhelmed and investment-hungry National Health Service, defy easy fixes. Even with more funding, Mr. Sunak said, “people are waiting too long for the care they need,” citing ambulances lining up outside hospitals that have no beds for patients.
Budget pressures and the cost-of-living crisis have sparked widespread labor unrest, with nurses storming hospital wards and railway workers shutting down trains. The government is expected to announce new anti-strike legislation, but Mr Sunak admitted the difficulty of making deals with multiple unions, despite the fact that Polls show that the British generally support workers..
“I don’t think anyone thinks a 19 percent pay increase is affordable,” he said of the nurses’ wage demands.
Beyond that, the UK economy is also likely to deteriorate further before bottoming out and starting to recover. Sunak acknowledged that sobering reality, noting that many Britons were looking to 2023 with “apprehension”.
For Sunak, who has been criticized for his understated style, the speech was an effort to offer much-needed reassurance and present an image of a strong leader in command. With two years to go before he is due to call an election, he presented his five promises, which also included reducing public debt and stopping the dangerous flow of immigrant ships through the English Channel, as criteria for judging his government.
Understand the political situation in Great Britain
Eschewing the ideological extremism of Ms Truss or the “eat your cake and eat it too” optimism of her predecessor Boris Johnson, Mr Sunak adopted a nuts-and-bolts tone. Characteristically, the most widely promoted initiative of his was a plan for all schoolchildren to study mathematics up to the age of 18.
“One of the biggest mindset shifts we need in education today is to reimagine our approach to numeracy,” Sunak said, a line that probably wouldn’t have appeared in a Johnson speech.
Still, some experts said there was less to some of Sunak’s promises than met the eye. The Bank of England has already projected that the inflation rate, currently at 10.1 percent, will roughly halve by the end of 2023. That downward trend, in any case, has less to do with fiscal policy than it does. with monetary policy.
Mr. Sunak’s promise to “grow the economy” by the end of the year was noteworthy, given that it is now likely to be shrinking. But he offered few prescriptions for how the government planned to do that. Britain has struggled with lackluster productivity and stagnant growth for more than a decade.
“Growth will return, almost certainly in the next year, but that’s a very low bar,” said Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London. “I would point out that Truss set an explicit growth target of 2.5 percent, so Sunak is being much less ambitious.”
Sunak, a 42-year-old former investment banker who served as Chancellor of Finance under Johnson, faces a daunting task to improve public services. The NHS, one of Britain’s most revered institutions, suffered through years of austerity under Conservative-led governments and then was hit hard by the pandemic.
Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the Institute of Government, a London-based research institute, said that by the time the next general election is held, Sunak will need to be able to show the British public that things are looking up and therefore it would be a risk ousting him from power.
“Most public services looked quite fragile at the time of the pandemic, and the pandemic then piled problems on top of them, including long delays in health care and burnout among the workforce,” said Ms. Rutter. Those problems, she said, “were compounded by inflation and a big cut in public sector wages.”
Most of these underlying weaknesses will remain, even if the government settles the pay dispute with nurses and ambulance drivers. “Even if Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt write a big check to the NHS, that doesn’t solve the capacity problem quickly,” he said, referring to the current chancellor.
Similarly, Mr. Sunak has a limited number of options to revive the economy even if inflation subsides and interest rates stop rising. Last fall, Mr. Hunt reversed the tax cuts announced by Ms. Truss, replacing them with a series of tax increases and spending cuts. The setback restored Britain’s tarnished reputation in financial markets, but at the cost of domestic economic activity.
Mr Sunak also needs to manage the divisions within his wayward Conservative Party, knowing that Mr Johnson harbors ambitions of returning to Downing Street, given the chance.
“One of Sunak’s problems is that his party is so far-fetched that, on a wide range of issues, if you go one way, you’ll antagonize a bunch of them, and if you go another, you’ll antagonize another group.” Rutter said.
Any attempt to solve labor shortages by relaxing immigration rules, for example, would provoke opposition from a right-wing faction within the Conservative Party, as would any compromise with the European Union on post-Brexit trade rules for Ireland. from North.
One of Mr. Sunak’s most immediate challenges is reducing the flotilla of small boats that transport asylum seekers across the canal. On Wednesday, he promised new laws that would stop the crossings, but provided no timetable or evidence for how deporting illegal immigrants would stem the influx.
However, by outlining his priorities for the coming year, Mr Sunak hopes to silence critics who say he has been staying out of the spotlight as alarm bells spread about the state of the health service and as the latest wave of strikes paralyze the parties. from the country.
The leader of the opposition Labor Party, Keir Starmer, was scheduled to make a speech on his schedule on Thursday. Sunak’s hastily scheduled appearance prevented his rival from exploiting a political vacuum to seize Labor’s lead over the Conservatives in the polls, now more than 20 percentage points.
Like Mr. Sunak, Mr. Starmer is considered an uninspiring public speaker. His critics accuse him of being overly cautious and failing to articulate how he would change the country as prime minister.
For Sunak, the challenge is more immediate but no less daunting: convincing skeptics that he is up to the job of prime minister at a time of converging crises.