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3 January 2023

New year heralds no resolution for Rishi Sunak

The Prime Minister projects stability, but his plans for levelling up and childcare could reopen his party’s wounds.

By Zoë Grünewald

We start the new year off in much the same way that we left 2022 – strikes disrupting public services and the cost of living at a historic high. Rishi Sunak gently reminded people not to raise their hopes for 2023 too much in a cheery new year’s address as political hacks made their predictions for the year.

The immediate threat of a general election has dissipated, for now. Labour sources seem quietly and contently resigned to one being held in late 2024 as expected, now that the Conservatives have managed to restore a sense of stability with Sunak as Prime Minister.

That doesn’t mean a quiet year. Sunak still has a legislative agenda to get through. The Levelling Up Bill has caused divisions within the Conservative Party over housing targets and onshore wind, and the off-and-on-again Online Safety Bill may reignite debate about freedom vs state intervention.

The government has a series of difficult decisions to make. The NHS is in tatters, struggling through a heavy bout of winter illness with a sparse and burnt-out workforce. Negotiations since nurses and ambulance workers went on strike last month have been fruitless, and more industrial action is expected. The British Medical Association is to ballot junior doctors on strikes on 9 January.

Further industrial action from rail workers, bus drivers, teachers and civil servants has also been announced for much of January. Fears of a general strike in all but name will certainly be at the forefront of Sunak’s mind.

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Sunak must get a handle on the economy, energy prices and inflation. Forecasts have slightly improved since Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, gave the autumn statement in November but as the war in Ukraine rumbles on and emergency government support for energy bills ends in April, there is much financial difficulty ahead.

Politicians are beginning to focus on high levels of domestic long-term sickness and unemployment, and Sunak is understood to have scrapped plans to reform the childcare system. If an alternative is not posited, expect dissent on both sides of the Commons chamber as MPs call for urgent changes to the extortionate UK childcare system as a means of stimulating the economy.

Threats to Sunak are emerging from inside his party, too. As Rachel reported, Richard Tice’s Reform UK party is trying to poach Tory right-wingers. As Labour rises in the polls, defections to the opposition look increasingly likely as well. Without coherent policies on the economy, immigration and levelling up, Sunak could start to lose support alarmingly quickly.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Bridget Phillipson: “Childcare has to be part of a country’s economic strategy”]

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