Article text updated March 2023
After the tumultuous first few months of his premiership, Rishi Sunak wanted to start 2023 with a clean slate. To this end, on January 4 the Prime Minister made five pledges to the British public that he said would bring “peace of mind” about where the country is heading.
Sunak pledged to halve inflation this year; to grow the economy and create better-paid jobs across the country; to see national debt fall; to shorten NHS waiting lists; and to pass new laws to stop small migrant boats crossing the Channel.
These promises reflect “people’s priorities”, Sunak said. “We will either have achieved them, or not. No tricks, no ambiguity; we’re either delivering for you or we’re not. We will rebuild trust in politics through action, or not at all.
“I ask you to judge us on the effort that we put in and the results that we achieve.”
In an effort to provide the public and Sunak with the accountability he called for, throughout the year, Spotlight will be tracking data on the five pledges to see whether his promises are being fulfilled. No tricks, no ambiguity, as he put it.
Sunak has recently passed 100 days in office, and it is a month since he made those pledges. Here’s how things stand as February 2023 begins (Last updated 4 February).
[See also: Conservatives are losing confidence in Rishi Sunak]
Pledge one: Halving inflation
“First, we will half inflation this year to ease the cost of living and give people financial security.”
In October 2022 the annual rate of the consumer prices index of inflation hit a record-breaking high of 11.1 per cent, driven by the rising costs of energy and food. In the months since that inflation has slowed slightly, but it remains in double figures.
Inflation is forecast to continue to fall in 2023, but that will largely be driven by falling wholesale gas and oil prices, rather than any government intervention. “Those big drops will mechanically lower inflation – because energy prices directly impact inflation – but also boost the economy because the hit to living standards will be smaller from high inflation,” James Smith, research director at the Resolution Foundation think tank, told Spotlight. The promise to halve inflation “already looked achievable when Sunak announced it based on prior forecasts”, he added.
“We all know that the government does not control inflation," the economist Wolfgang Münchau recently wrote for the New Statesman. Münchau said that Sunak implying he has power over prices would be as absurd as the Prime Minister declaring “an England victory at the Euro 2024 football championship to be his main policy goal”.
Ahead of the Budget in March, the Officer for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR) report on the government’s spending plans predicted that the UK economy would not fall into a “technical recession” in 2023, and that inflation would fall to 2.9 per cent by the end of the year. A week after the Budget and the OBR’s predictions, however, Britain’s consumer prices index (CPI) for February revealed that inflation had gone up from the previous month. Driven by the highest surge in food prices for 45 years, inflation went up from 10.1 per cent in January, to 10.4 per cent in February.
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Pledge two: Growing the economy
"We will grow the economy, creating better-paid jobs and opportunity right across the country."
Rising inflation has led real-terms pay for the average UK worker to fall drastically since mid-2021. This has led to strikes across the country as workers argue that anything less than a pay rise equal to inflation is a pay cut. "How the labour market responds to the slowing economy will be one of the big issues to look out for this year," said Smith.
While national unemployment remains fairly low, in the last three years unprecedented numbers of people have dropped out of the workforce and become "economically inactive," whether due to early retirement, chronic illness or having to stay at home to take care of children due to the high cost of childcare.
In a recent speech at Bloomberg's HQ, Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, said the government planned to grow the economy by focussing on four "Es": enterprise, education, employment and everywhere. The specifics of that plan will probably be in March's Budget. "Britain's economy has stagnated, and it has done so more than other economies elsewhere," said Smith. "What we need is more meat on Hunt’s plan, and a clear overall strategy that takes seriously what the UK economy is good at and what it can do to grow."
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Pledge three: Debt falling
"We will make sure our national debt is falling so that we can secure the future of public services."
The cost of the pandemic drove the UK's gross government debt up to £2.4tr, more than the country's GDP. That figure hasn't yet started to decline, but GDP is growing slightly, so debt as a percentage of GDP is falling. The fall in wholesale gas prices and the ending of the government's energy price guarantee, which limited people's bills, will save around £10bn in public finances, noted Smith. Despite this, Sunak has expressed the need for financial discipline, which is at the heart of disputes with various public workers over pay.
"The immediate [financial] pressures on public finances and services should be a little bit less," noted Smith. "Whether that translates into the government coming under more pressure to do more to stop the various strikes that are going on will be interesting to see."
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Pledge four: Falling NHS waiting lists
"NHS waiting lists will fall and people will get the care they need more quickly."
Images of beds lining hospital corridors and stories of loved ones lost to treatable conditions have dominated the papers in recent weeks, as GPs, hospitals and ambulances struggle to meet demand. According to the latest figures over 7.2 million people are waiting for elective treatment.
The NHS internal target sets out that 92 per cent of patients should be treated within 18 weeks, and between 2010 and 2018 it hovered around that goal. Waiting lists swelled during the pandemic when non-urgent treatment was delayed, and in recent months the situation has only worsened. By the end of 2022 just 58 per cent of patients were being treated within 18 weeks.
"One thing to highlight is that there was very little detail behind the Prime Minister's pledge," Tim Gardner, a senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation charity, told Spotlight. "He didn't talk about how much he's going to cut waiting lists by, from what baseline or by when. In his speech, he flipped back and forth between waiting lists and waiting times, and they're not the same thing at all. It might sound like a real technicality but it's entirely possible to cut waiting lists, but people actually wait longer for care."
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Pledge five: Stopping small boats
"We will pass new laws to stop small boats, making sure that if you come to this country illegally, you are detained and swiftly removed."
Sunak claims he will "stop small boats" that carry migrants and asylum seekers to the UK, but the evidence shows the Home Office is in no way equipped to make the "swift removals" he pledges.
Of people who arrived in the UK on small boats during 2022, 90 per cent have applied for asylum. Of those applications, only 3 per cent have received an initial decision, meaning tens of thousands are in limbo, unable to work. Looking back further, at the 83,000 arrivals since 2018, 83 per cent are still awaiting a decision. Of those who have received an initial decision only 9 per cent have been refused and more than 60 per cent have been granted refugee status.
As of December 2022, the Home Office asylum application backlog has surpassed 135,000, growth of 60 per cent compared to a year before. Of that number, almost 90,000 have been waiting more than six months for their initial decision. The government is proposing measures such as making asylum decisions from questionnaires rather than interviews, and giving applicants just 20 days to submit.
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