Has Rishi Sunak made progress on his five pledges to the UK public?

Prime Minister asked voters to judge his leadership in five areas shortly after he entered Downing Street

Britain's Prime Minister is preparing for his first Tory conference as leader. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Having leapt on to the Conservative stage at a tumultuous time for British politics, Rishi Sunak had his work cut out for him from day one.

Long seen as one of the most successful political parties in the western world, the Conservative Party’s members, supporters and politicians had been crying out for strong and sensible leadership.

Mr Sunak’s victory in the Tory leadership race was unlike any other – the UK’s first ethnic Asian and Hindu leader entered office as the shortest-serving prime minister, Liz Truss, departed.

Casting himself as a sensible pair of hands committed to steadying the rocky Tory ship, he made a vow to the British public to lead with “integrity, professionalism and accountability”.

As he disappeared behind the black door of 10 Downing Street, there was a thirst for stability following months of Tory infighting and years of Brexit dominating politics.

Less than three months later, he laid out his five key priorities: stop the boats, halve inflation in 2023, grow the economy, reduce debt and cut waiting lists for patients in the National Health Service.

As Mr Sunak approaches his anniversary in office and prepares for his first Conservative Party Conference as leader, it begs the question: has the Prime Minister made good on his promises?

Stop the boats

After being sworn in as Britain’s leader on October 25, Mr Sunak launched a multifaceted bid to stop the stream of dinghies illegally transporting migrants across the English Channel – but this has proved to be challenging.

Albanians accounted for more than half of illegal migrants who filed modern slavery claims upon arrival in the UK in the first half of 2022 – a trend which the Prime Minister said was “ridiculous”.

Mr Sunak and his Albanian counterpart, Edi Rama, agreed in December to enhance co-operation in three areas including illegal immigration.

In June, the Sunak government said the “gold-standard” deal had resulted in 12,000 Albanians being deported after crossing the Channel on small boats.

The government has not had so much success with its plan to curb illegal migration overall.

The Illegal Migration Bill, introduced in Parliament in March, aims to ensure that anyone who comes to the UK illegally will be detained and deported to their country of origin or a safe third country such as Rwanda.

The legislation suffered a series of setbacks before alterations were made and it received royal assent in July.

Campaigners won a Court of Appeal challenge in June that saw the three judges overturn a High Court ruling that previously said the East African nation was considered a “safe third country”.

Mr Sunak said he disagreed with the court’s ruling and that he would appeal to the Supreme Court.

His government's bid to house migrants on the Bibby Stockholm barge was also thrown into the air after legionella bacteria was detected shortly after the first group of men were moved on to the accommodation. They were swiftly removed but the episode caused embarrassment for the government.

About 24,208 Channel arrivals have been recorded so far this year.

Slash NHS waiting lists

Britain’s NHS has long been seen as sacrosanct to the nation and is the envy of many countries the world over, including developed nations.

It routinely ranks in the top three issues for voters when deciding which party to support in a general election.

This would have been on the Prime Minister’s mind when he pledged to reduce waiting lists to enable people to gain access to health care more quickly.

His promise refers only to waiting lists in England, as the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland look after their own health systems.

The latest recording of patient waiting lists in England did not offer any hope to the Conservative government that the promise could be kept.

In June, the waiting lists hit a record 7.68 million, with two in five people waiting more than 18 weeks to be seen.

Almost 400,000 patients were waiting for treatment for heart conditions, the British Heart Foundation said.

The government is planning to turn to the private sector in an attempt to solve the crisis.

Mr Sunak on Thursday blamed strikes by junior doctors, nurses and other health staff for stifling progress on his pledge to bring down the numbers.

The number of appointments and procedures that had to be cancelled due to strikes in the health service recently passed the one million mark.

Speaking to BBC Radio Cornwall, Mr Sunak said “I know people are frustrated” but said he shared their frustration because “the strikes are holding back progress”.

The Prime Minister pointed out that agreements have been reached with more than a million NHS workers, including nurses and porters, and that junior doctors have been offered more than anyone else in the public sector.

“Those are the facts and people will make up their own minds,” he said.

Grow the economy

Vague in its wording, this pledge was made by the Prime Minister with the aim of “creating better-paid jobs and opportunity right across the country”.

Number 10 said the target will be achieved if, using gross domestic product, the economy is bigger in the final quarter of 2023 than it was in the previous quarter (July-September).

Office of National Statistics figures released on Friday showed UK’s GDP is estimated to have increased by 0.2 per cent in April to June, unrevised. And it was estimated to have increased by 0.3 per cent in the first three months of this year, revised up from 0.1 per cent.

Mr Sunak on Friday said that new figures suggesting that the economy had grown faster than expected between January and March proves the doubters wrong.

“People doubted the strength of the UK economy – today’s data proves them wrong,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter, in response to the ONS statistics.

“We’re sticking to the plan to halve inflation and grow the economy.

“You can trust me to get it done.”

Halve inflation

When Mr Sunak pledged in January to cut inflation in half, the latest published inflation figure was November 2022's 10.7 per cent.

By August it had fallen to 6.7 per cent.

To help slow inflation, the Bank of England raised interest rates 14 times to 5.25 per cent from November 2021. Last week, the bank left rates unchanged.

Mr Sunak last week said inflation is “on track to be halved”.

Reduce debt

Mr Sunak’s fourth vow to the British public was to decrease debt to secure the future of public services.

In a speech last week laying out his about-turns on key aspects of the Tories’ flagship green agenda, the party leader claimed debt is “on target to be falling”.

Britain’s pile of debt was larger than the country’s economic output in June – the first time this has happened for more than 60 years, official data showed.

In July, public sector net borrowing hit £18.5 billion, down from £20 billion a month earlier, the ONS revealed. It pushed the total debt recording to a little less than £2.6 trillion.

The ONS said debt reached 100.8 per cent of GDP in June, the first time that had happened since 1961.

Updated: October 01, 2023, 5:35 AM