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12 January 2023

Rishi Sunak needs to show the public he can do more than crisis management

The PM’s current priorities are easy to achieve and do nothing to define his form of Conservatism.

By Freddie Hayward

The government currently has around 25 bills going through parliament. But if you examine the list, it’s hard to find something the Conservatives can brandish at the next general election.

This creates a few problems for Rishi Sunak. His New Year’s speech set out his priorities for the year: halve inflation, grow the economy, stop the boats, reduce debt and cut NHS waiting times. It doesn’t take a veteran political strategist to tell you the median voter wants their prime minister to address these issues. And by setting easy-to-achieve targets on key priorities for voters, Sunak will be able to claim he is delivering later in the year.

But people usually want more from politicians in general elections than a record of crisis management. True, he has some time. Let’s imagine he gets to the end of the year and says: “I got us through some awful times, now we can turn to our key policies.” He’ll then have nine months or so to strike some dividing lines with Labour and define his form of Conservatism.

Watch: Freddie Hayward joins Andrew Marr and Anoosh Chakelian to dissect the first PMQs of 2023

But what might that be? Sunak’s core political belief is fiscal conservatism. He won’t want to increase government budgets given the risk of missing debt reduction targets (which were already relaxed in Jeremy Hunt’s November Budget). What about education? It’s a topic he cares about. But the only policy announcement he made in his New Year speech was a vague aspiration for all pupils in England to study maths until the age of 18. He’s also shied away from serious housing reforms, even though Labour offered him the votes to defeat the rebels in his party.

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Perhaps, if gas prices continue to fall more quickly than predicted, he will have the leeway to make a tax cut or two. That could strike a dividing line with Labour who will have to consider which taxes to rise in order to fund its manifesto (equalising capital gains and income tax, say). But the problem with that strategy is the connection between higher taxes and better public services is becoming more prominent in the mind of voters.

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A British Social Attitudes survey from September showed that a mere 6 per cent of voters opted for a combination of tax cuts and spending cuts, compared to 52 per cent who supported higher taxes and higher spending. No one wants their own taxes raised, particularly in a cost-of-living crisis. But, with the depth of the crisis in the NHS, Labour will have the space to argue that more taxes are essential to fixing our public services. And if that’s the case, what remains of Sunak’s offer to the British public?

That’s the first problem. The second problem is that there is still a large contingent of Tory MPs who are wedded to the reforms championed by Liz Truss. “I simply believe high taxes are bad for society,” one MP muttered to me yesterday morning. And those reforms are being chucked out one by one. Sunak has shelved or delayed key policies he inherited: childcare reforms, small nuclear reactors, investment zones. His plans to ban single use plastic cutlery might not compensate. As the grumblings within the party grow, Sunak will have to think about what he can offer his MPs in the forthcoming Budget before they get annoyed after a poor set of results in the local elections in May.

Theresa May’s deputy head of policy, Will Tanner, left No 10 after the 2017 general election because, without a large majority, he thought the government wouldn’t be able to focus on a domestic agenda beyond Brexit. Tanner is now back in Downing Street as Sunak’s deputy chief of staff – but has the problem changed?

[See also: Ben Wallace is on high alert after Prince Harry’s Taliban kill-count revelation]

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