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25 September 2022

Some advice for Rishi Sunak as Britain’s new prime minister

As the keys to No 10 are handed over, policy leaders share their thoughts on the biggest issues facing the UK right now.

By Spotlight

This article was originally published on 5 September 2022. As we welcome a new prime minister into No 10, it has been updated with the latest information and republished.

The country’s most powerful position has changed hands once again. The keys to No 10 are now in the possession of Rishi Sunak, the country’s third prime minister in seven weeks.

However, Sunak’s celebrations are sure to be short-lived. The country is facing a series of crises that require strong leadership and rapid responses.

The NHS is overloaded. Inflation is soaring, at 10.1 per cent and counting, as the cost-of-living crisis deepens. Energy prices, food and rents are rising. As a result, industries across the board are seeing strike action as workers negotiate for better pay and conditions.

Despite the Johnson government’s commitment to levelling up, there remain massive disparities across regions, with health, wealth and quality of public services all varying widely across the UK.

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Sunak must also turn his attention outwards, toward more existential issues, including the climate crisis. We experienced the hottest summer day on record in July, with experts saying that frequent heatwaves will become the norm. Droughts have been declared across the UK, and recent flooding has led to claims that public utilities, such as water, are being wasted.

The war in Ukraine continues, as does the threat to the UK – there are security concerns for businesses and national services, and fears of an imminent cyber attack that could devastate critical infrastructure. Regulation of online spaces to curb the spread of extremism, misinformation and abuse was a priority of the previous government, and many are curious to know whether Sunak will continue to progress the delayed Online Safety Bill.

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Spotlight has asked a number of policy leaders for their thoughts on these issues, and to offer some words of advice for our new Prime Minister.

What should the new PM do to bolster health and social care as we head into winter?

“The new PM must experience the front line of health and social care directly. Not through sanitised visits, but through work-experience-like time spent witnessing the extreme pressures in primary care or hospitals’ inability to discharge patients, the frustrations with staff shortages, and a lack of beds across the system.   

They would see dedicated individuals working tirelessly in nigh on impossible circumstances, and teams constantly shuffling choices about who they treat first and who sometimes is not treated at all. No PM witnessing the current NHS could fail to appreciate the value of these staff and the immediate need to recruit and retain them. They would be proud and mortified in equal measure. 

As highly trained experts, doctors currently enter the profession with uniquely massive student debt and many leave prematurely because of punitive, misguided pension taxation laws. Promises have been made on the campaign trail to ‘sort out’ these laws, but we’ll be watching to make sure they follow through.  

Doctors are not worth less than they were in 2008, but have endured real-terms pay cuts since then all the same. A PM that truly values the NHS would value its staff and appreciate the real cost of providing health and social care — and would commit the appropriate funding.” 

Professor Philip Banfield, chair of the British Medical Association

Will tax cuts solve the cost-of-living crisis?

“As energy bills leap upwards yet again, the number of low-income families missing meals, heating and other essentials will soar above the seven million reported in May. For the poorest fifth of families, energy alone will swallow staggering portions of budgets if forecasts prove correct: almost two-thirds for a single parent and an eye-watering 120 per cent for a single person.

This is preventable. But only with immediate action to fill the cruel void left by the leadership contest. Support must protect the worst off and be sufficient in scale to avert further hardship.

The trouble with tax cuts is they struggle to achieve this scale or prioritise those in greatest need. Most savings from reversing the National Insurance rise would go to high-income households. Cutting the green levy lowers bills for everyone, but a £150 yearly saving achieves very little when energy costs alone rise above £2,000.

The intensity of this storm means the need for support now extends beyond low-income families. Tax cuts could deliver a little extra cash but should only ever be in addition to (never instead of) support for the most vulnerable. Besides, there are more efficient, progressive alternatives.

Sunak has an unenviable new job. He cannot shield us all from worsening finances, but with the right prioritisation he can prevent a fast-approaching catastrophe.”

Rebecca McDonald, chief economist, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

How should the new PM ensure that levelling up stays top of the policy agenda?

“People need convincing that levelling up is more than an electoral strategy or a conceptual white paper. Our deep, regional inequalities have bedevilled the inboxes of successive prime ministers, albeit under the guise of various policy buzzwords: productivity puzzles, new industrial strategies or inclusive growth.

Whatever it’s called, the fact is that too many parts of this country are not fulfilling their potential. This deep-rooted structural challenge is now exacerbated by spiralling costs of living. This has human consequences in terms of blunted life chances and economic impacts through stunted national growth. So, whether for moral or financial reasons, the new PM will need to prioritise it.

Policy failure on this agenda to date demonstrates the contradictions and limits of nationally led strategy alone. There’s no sense in starving local civic infrastructure of resource for over a decade and then wondering why places lack pride. There’s only so much levelling up that can be done from the centre – ultimately, places need the tools and investment capabilities to fulfil their own plans.

A renewed devolution drive should genuinely redistribute power from the centre to communities, where people can feel tangible influence over what matters in their lives: their education, well-being and livelihoods.”

Jessica Studdert, deputy chief executive, New Local

What should the new PM’s first priority be when it comes to climate change policy?

“The sirens of the cost-of-living scandal, energy crisis and climate emergency grow ever louder – yet the Tory leadership candidates remain deafeningly silent when it comes to the meaningful action required to simultaneously tackle all three. 

As a minimum, the Universal Credit uplift must be reinstated immediately and doubled to £40, to put cash back in the hands of those with the lowest incomes. And the energy price cap should be frozen, but not at its current unaffordable level – it must be backdated to last October’s level of £1,277, and the ‘big five’ energy retail companies brought back into public hands. 

This summer’s extreme heat and drought has crystallised the need for radical climate action – fossil fuels must stay in the ground in order to avoid ever-worsening climate impacts, alongside a fossil fuel treaty to phase them out internationally. And there’s never been a better time for a retrofit revolution: an urgent street-by-street, local authority-led home insulation programme to slash bills and cut carbon.

These interlinked crises require bold, ambitious solutions – not pandering to Tory members, heartless parsimony and yet more climate delay.”

Caroline Lucas, MP and co-leader of the Green Party

What measures should the new PM take to keep the UK safe from cyber threats?

“As a modern, interconnected society, the UK is dependent on the smooth running of its critical national infrastructure, providing gas, water, electricity, banking and communications to the UK’s homes and businesses. 

As a country, we’re more digitally interconnected than ever before, but with that increased dependency comes vulnerability, to aggressors such as cyber criminals and hacktivists. Although public attention is currently focused on leaky pipes and energy price caps, the concern of the public – and that of the new PM – should also be focused on the vulnerabilities we face from cyber attacks.

This threat is brought into sharp focus by the sheer volume of attacks the UK faces, and the shortage of skilled individuals to defend organisations from malicious intent.

To bolster defences, the UK must bridge the cyber profession’s skills gap – a yearly shortfall of 14,100 individuals. It also faces an issue with diversity; DCMS data suggests just 15 per cent of cyber roles are filled by women, 9 per cent who identify as neurodiverse, and just 16 per cent are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

I want to see the UK Cyber Security Council and the wider sector work collaboratively – across the third sector, and both public and private sectors – if we are to close the gap, bolster the country’s cyber defences and protect against the tide of attacks.

Left unchecked by the new PM, the skills gap and the lack of diverse skills in the profession leaves the UK even more exposed to threats. The government must do all it can to protect critical infrastructure to avoid crippling cyber attacks in the near future, which would further entrench the cost-of-living crisis.”

Simon Hepburn, CEO, the UK Cyber Security Council

What should the new PM do to help people stay safe online?

“The internet is essential for work, school and home life in 2022, but cyber bullying, child predation, and content promoting self-harm can make it a dangerous place. Our new PM should prioritise addressing these risks in a way that balances privacy with free speech. 

Rather than pass an Online Safety Bill that forgets to balance UK residents’ civil liberties, the new PM should focus on protecting us online in other ways. First, they should salvage the bill through significant amendments like clarifying what harmful speech should actually be illegal, only requiring platforms to remove that content, and holding users, not platforms, liable for unlawful speech. Second, they should protect vulnerable individuals and marginalised groups online by preserving trusted, safe and private communications – especially encrypted communications – in all potential and future legislation.

The UK can become a pioneer in online safety, but the new PM should focus on high-level, flexible guidelines to ensure innovation in content moderation, private communications, digital identity and artificial intelligence thrive in the UK. A moldable, light-touch approach is more likely to protect the types of speech we want online – conversations about police practices, reproductive rights and injustice, for example – while preventing what we don’t: cyber flashing, criminal offences and exploitation of marginalised communities.

Kir Nuthi, senior policy analyst, Center for Data Innovation

[See also: As the race for Tory leadership ends, Liz Truss prepares to enter No 10]