Sunak marks a year in office with little to celebrate - GulfToday

Sunak marks a year in office with little to celebrate

Rishi Sunak

The Conservatives trail between 15 and 20 points behind Labour in opinion polls.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak marked a year in office on Wednesday with little to celebrate as wars on the international stage make a grim backdrop to his domestic challenges. On top of that, another year seems to be haunting his Conservative Party: 1996. Then — as now — the party had been in power for well over a decade, but opinion polls put the opposition ahead and Conservative dissent and scandal dominated the headlines. The following year, voters booted the Tories out, delivering a landslide victory to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour Party.

Many Conservatives fear the party faces the same fate in an election that must be called by the end of 2024. The Conservatives trail between 15 and 20 points behind Labour in opinion polls — a gap that has barely moved during Sunak’s year in office. The latest Israel-Hamas conflict, now in its third week, and Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, have added to Sunak’s challenges. “I know this year has been tough,” Sunak said in a message marking the anniversary. “And there is still work to be done to help hardworking families across the country, but I’m proud of the steps we’ve made.”

A little over a year ago, Sunak thought he had lost his chance to be prime minister. In September 2022 he lost a Conservative leadership contest to Liz Truss, who took over as prime minister from the scandal-dogged Boris Johnson. Then, Truss announced a budget that included billions in uncosted tax cuts and spooked the financial markets. The value of the pound plunged, the cost of government borrowing soared — and Truss announced her resignation after just six weeks in office. The party chose Sunak to replace her, and he became Britain’s third prime minister of the year. “Some mistakes were made,” Sunak said diplomatically as he stood outside 10 Downing St. on Oct. 25, 2022. “And I have been elected as leader of my party and your prime minister, in part, to fix them.”
He promised his government would “have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.” The markets calmed, and Sunak managed to patch up relations with the European Union, which had frayed during Britain’s testy divorce from the bloc. He announced five goals for his government, including halving inflation, which peaked at 11.1% in late 2022, getting the economy growing, reducing a health care backlog and curbing the number of migrants reaching Britain across the English Channel in small boats.

There has been some progress — inflation was 6.7% in September and the economy is growing, albeit only by about 0.5% on the year. But the health system remains overburdened, the government’s plans to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda as a deterrent is mired in the courts, and millions of people in Britain are still struggling to pay their bills.

Sunak has fought back by trying to reinvent himself as a shake-things-up populist. He announced he was slowing moves to phase out fossil fuels in order to save taxpayers money, curtailed an overbudget high-speed railway project and announced plans to effectively ban smoking for the next generation with a gradual ban on buying cigarettes.

He told delegates at the Conservative conference this month that he was making “long-term decisions for a better future,” but to critics it just looked like an incoherent hodgepodge of policies.
Former Conservative lawmaker Justine Greening said Sunak’s talk of “breaking the political consensus and challenging the status quo” sounded more like Truss than the “sensible, pragmatic” politician who steadied the ship after his disruptive predecessor.

“Whether inside or outside the party, Sunak’s sudden reincarnation as ‘Liz lite’ has left nobody happy,” Greening wrote in The Guardian. Two disastrous byelection results last week deepened the gloom. The Conservatives lost two seats in Parliament that they had held for years by large margins, as voters switched in droves to Labour. For now, the grumbling among Conservatives is muted. Few want to risk ousting yet another leader before an election.

Sunak is not giving up. His office released a snappy video touting the achievements of the past year and telling viewers to “watch this space” for more wins. The government’s plans for the next year will be set out by King Charles III at the State Opening of Parliament on Nov. 7. Spokesman Max Blain said Sunak is “focused on delivering for the public rather than marking an anniversary.”

Meanwhile, Britain on Tuesday said it will stop using 50 of the hotels in which it houses asylum seekers and instead rely on cheaper forms of accommodation as part of plans to deter people arriving on the south coast of England in small boats. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made stopping people arriving on the boats one of his priorities after the number of asylum seekers landing on the south coast of England soared to more than 45,000 last year, up 500% in two years.
Surveys show that immigration, a key factor in the 2016 referendum vote for Britain to leave the European Union, remains a major concern for voters ahead of a national election expected next year. A majority of the public think the government is handling the issue badly.

The government argues the use of hotels is unsustainable with the cost of processing and housing asylum seekers rising to 3 billion pounds ($3.66 billion) per year, while some politicians have complained the policy has adversely impacted tourism and inflamed local tensions.
The BBC reported earlier this year that 400 hotels were being used to house asylum seekers. The UK interior ministry declined to confirm that figure.

The immigration minister Robert Jenrick told parliament on Tuesday he had written to councils to tell them that the government will end the use of the first tranche of hotels by January with the aim of cancelling more contracts in the future. In March, about 20,000 in Britain receiving asylum support were being housed in hotel accommodation, according to the House of Commons Library. The government has announced plans to use more mass accommodation instead, including military bases and barges. It also wants to deport nearly all asylum seekers who arrive in Britain on small boats to Rwanda. That plan has undergone a series of legal challenges and its fate rests on a Supreme Court decision expected in mid-December.


Related articles