LONDON – U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has angry unions to the left of him, anxious Conservative Party lawmakers to the right and, in the middle, millions of voters he must win over to avert electoral defeat.
It’s a daunting situation for Sunak, who on Thursday marks 100 days in office, more than twice the number of his ill-fated predecessor, Liz Truss. Installed as Conservative leader after Truss’ plan for huge tax cuts sparked panic, the 42-year-old Sunak calmed financial markets and averted economic meltdown after he assumed the post of prime minister on Oct. 25.
Next, Britain’s youngest leader for two centuries — and its first prime minister of South Asian heritage — has promised to tame soaring inflation, get the sluggish economy growing, ease pressure on the overburdened health care system and “restore the integrity back into politics” after years of scandals under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Easier said than done.
“The things that happened before I was prime minister, I can’t do anything about,” Sunak told a group of health workers this week. “What I think you can hold me to account for is how I deal with the things that arise on my watch.”
Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government think tank, said Sunak had succeeded in overcoming the impression that the U.K. “had a completely lunatic government.”
“You would chalk that up as the first thing that he had on his to-do list,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s slightly hard to see concrete achievements.”
Sunak is a former U.K. Treasury chief, and his top priority has been the country's economic malaise. Gross domestic product remains smaller than it was before the coronavirus pandemic, and the International Monetary Fund forecast this week that the U.K. will be the only major economy to contract this year, shrinking by 0.6%.
Sunak blames global forces — disruption from the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Critics say the elephant in the room is Brexit, which has led to a sharp reduction in trade between the U.K. and the European Union.
Sunak, a longtime advocate of Britain’s departure from the bloc, insisted Wednesday that the cost-of-living crisis had “nothing to do with Brexit.”
Whatever the causes, Sunak has little economic room to maneuver. Annual inflation hit a four-decade high of 11.1% in October and remained at a painful 10.5% in December. The U.K. is in the midst of its biggest wave of strikes in decades as nurses, paramedics, teachers, border agents and other workers seek pay increases to offset the soaring cost of living and the stresses of holding a job in an increasingly threadbare public sector.
Meanwhile, a faction inside the Conservative Party is pushing for immediate tax cuts to encourage growth, despite the damage done by “Trussonomics” just months ago.
“We need growth or our debts will get bigger,” lawmaker Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative leader, said this week. “Targeted tax reductions will help achieve that.”
Sunak is resisting both labor unions and tax-cutting Tories. He argues that double-digit public sector pay raises would drive inflation even higher and that “the best tax cut right now is a cut in inflation.”
Economists say U.K. inflation will likely fall during 2023, allowing Sunak to meet one of his key pledges. Other goals are likely to be harder to achieve.
He is seeking to improve relations with the 27-member EU, and both sides have made progress toward resolving a dispute over Northern Ireland trade rules that has burdened businesses and shuttered the regional government in Belfast.
But any agreement will anger Conservative euroskeptics, who are likely to see rapprochement with Brussels as a betrayal of Brexit. A compromise also faces opposition from Northern Ireland’s British unionists, who say post-Brexit customs checks undermine Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
Sunak also has struggled to rid the Conservative Party of its reputation for scandal and sleaze. A member of his Cabinet, Gavin Williamson, quit in November over bullying claims. On Sunday, Sunak fired party chair Nadhim Zahawi for failing to come clean about a multimillion-dollar tax dispute. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab is being investigated over allegations he bullied civil servants, which he denies.
The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, alleged Wednesday that Sunak was “too weak” to tackle bad behavior.
U.K. voters haven't yet had their say on Sunak, who was chosen as party leader by the 357 Conservative members of Parliament. The government doesn't have to call a national election until late 2024, so Sunak may have time on his side.
Or, he may not. The Conservatives are trailing 20 or more points behind Labour in opinion polls, and poor results in May's local elections could spur calls for another change of leader.
Some Conservatives hanker for the return of Johnson, whose final words to Parliament as prime minister — “Hasta la vista, baby” — hinted at a comeback.
Some analysts say it may be too late for any Conservative leader to avoid defeat. An Ipsos poll released this week, considered accurate to within 4 percentage points, found 66% of respondents wanted a change of governing party. Only 10% thought the Conservatives had done a good job.
Steven Fielding, emeritus professor of politics at the University of Nottingham, likened the mood to the final years of Prime Minister John Major’s government, wiped away by Tony Blair's Labour election landslide in 1997 that ended 18 years of Conservative rule.
“People are just waiting for them to go,” Fielding said. “And the longer they are there, the more irritated (voters) are with them.”
He said Sunak “is trying his best. But people aren’t listening.”
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