Rishi Sunak can survive a difficult winter

As strikes loom, the UK needs responsive and responsible government more than ever

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty. Reuters
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Over the next two weeks, many of the 120,000 British people living in the UAE will be heading home for Christmas.

Now there is a chance that almost one third of them might no longer be able to, and that many more will have to deal with a great deal of inconvenience getting back. The country’s border guards plan to strike over the festive season, at Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow airports. Officials are telling airlines to cancel 30 per cent of flights on strike days.

Border guards are taking industrial action mostly because of a 2 per cent rise in pay this year, while inflation is about 10 per cent. The union's general secretary, Mark Serwotka, called the situation a crisis. “Union members come to me, sometimes in tears, saying they can't afford to put food on the table. Our action will escalate in the new year if the government doesn't come to the table."

The government has vowed to pass “tough” new laws that will curb industrial action more widely going forward. This has become an urgent priority for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who faces his first winter in office with strikes by nurses, ambulance drivers and rail workers, among other sectors.

Previous Tory prime ministers have had some of their most famous moments staring down Britain’s trade unions. Along with her role in the Falklands War and the end of the USSR, defeating striking mining unions is one of Margaret Thatcher’s most famous achievements. However controversial, it won her many votes. She is easily one of the most recognisable British prime ministers of the 20th century.

But for Mr Sunak, it is less certain that loudly proclaiming himself against industrial action will be as successful. Polling at the very end of October showed that 65 per cent of the public support strike action by nurses. This solidarity, even at a time when everyone is contending with rising prices and reduced services in the public sector, is a problem for the government.

Other issues this winter include a sharp rise in inflation, bills and mortgage rates. There is uncertainty as to whether a stable electricity supply can be guaranteed. Migration is also key challenge. Rates of undocumented arrivals over the English Channel have surged. The country is already struggling to look after refugees already there. The number of Ukrainian refugees presenting themselves as homeless has risen by almost one third since November.

He might have been dealt a bad hand, but Mr Sunak still has options in terms of policies. Implementing them, despite short-term pain in some quarters, is crucial for the long-term benefit of the country. That is what responsive government looks like.

But hardest of all – and his survival as Prime Minister depends on it – will be convincing voters that his party, which has been in power for 12 years, can be a responsible government. As things stand, he is expected to lose at the next general election.

While the party’s economic record is under scrutiny, it is struggling perhaps most of all to rebuild trust, even among its own politicians, after a number of unedifying scandals. Speaking about some of his own colleagues, senior Tory MP Charles Walker put it more bluntly in an October interview, during a particularly testing time for the party following the chaotic, short-lived government led by Liz Truss. “I have had enough of talentless people putting their tick in the right box, not because it’s in the national interest, because it’s in their personal interest.”

Mr Sunak is certainly talented, but he might be running out of time to convince the British people that he can build a responsive and responsible government.

Published: December 09, 2022, 3:00 AM