Article updated November 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.
Update – November 2023: During a speech at the Global Food Security Summit in London on 20 November, Rishi Sunak outlined five new, “long term” pledges focused on generating “economic growth” – promising to reduce debt; cut taxes; build domestic and sustainable energy; support British businesses; and delivering “world class” education.
Sunak spoke the week after the news that inflation had halved since the start of the year – something the Prime Minister had set as a target at the outset of 2023, and is now claiming he has “delivered” on (though many economists strongly downplay the credit he can take).
The new pledges signal the “next stage” of Sunak’s “plan”, the Prime Minister said. But many are calling attention to the lack of progress made on the other four pledges Sunak made at the beginning of the year. “[Previously], one of the Prime Minister’s pledges was to cut NHS waiting lists,” shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Darren Jones wrote on X, with a chart highlighting the increasing backlog for treatment. “[Now], when Rishi Sunak launched his new five pledges he seemed to drop his waiting list promise. Why? Because like many of the PMs pledges, things are getting worse not better.”
[See also: For economic growth, send the men home]
Pledge one: Halving inflation
“First, we will half inflation this year to ease the cost of living and give people financial security.”
Update - November 2023: The latest figures show that inflation fell to 4.6 per cent in the year to October, as measured by the Consumer Price Index. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak claimed that he and his government "delivered" on the pledge to halve inflation, when it was 10.1 per cent, at the beginning of the year.
But many have questioned the credit the government can take. Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) think tank noted that it is the responsibility of the independent Bank of England, not the government, to control inflation. "It was an opportunistic pledge given the fact that Bank was, in January, forecasting that inflation would easily halve." Johnson said. "It was always inappropriate for the government to have a target/pledge to halve inflation... that's not their job and not something over which they have a lot of control."
It is also important to note that inflation is still comfortably above the 2 per cent target that the Bank of England sets out.
Inflation in the UK remains higher than its major international counterparts: in the U.S, for example, it is 3.2 per cent, and it is lower still in the Eurozone, at 2.9 per cent. It is important to note: falling inflation does not mean prices aren't rising, but are doing so less quickly. The cost-of-living-crisis is still being felt by millions: in October, half (5.9 million) of all low-income houses reduced on or skipped meals altogether, and a quarter of such households borrowed money to buy food, according to research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Last October inflation hit a record-breaking high of 11.1 per cent, driven by the rising costs of energy and food. Speaking on the latest figures, Grant Fitzner, chief economist at the Office for National Statistics (ONS), explained that price rises slowed in October as "last year's steep rise in energy costs has been followed by a small reduction in the energy price cap this year".
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. Meanwhile, recent research from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasted the UK to have the weakest economic growth across all G7 nations in 2024.
Pledge two: Growing the economy
"We will grow the economy, creating better-paid jobs and opportunity right across the country."
Update - November 2023: Real terms pay has somewhat recovered in 2023 - wages grew at a record annual rate of 7.8 per cent between April and June.
The number of people who are "economically inactive" - those not actively looking for work, perhaps because they are caring for relatives or have a long-term sickness themselves - dropped 0.1 per cent compared to the first quarter of the year, and was 20.9 per cent for the period between April to June 2023. The number of people who are economically inactive because of long-term sickness, however, has reached a record high of 2.58 million.
Rising inflation led real-terms pay for the average UK worker to fall drastically from 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. In June (the latest period there's available for), there were 160,000 working days lost to labour disputes, according to the ONS. Over half of those working days lost were due to disputes in the health and social care sector, as both junior and senior doctors engage in strike action over pay.
In a January 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 were revealed 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."
Pledge three: Debt falling
"We will make sure our national debt is falling so that we can secure the future of public services."
Update November 2023: The first two quarters of 2023 has seen the UK’s national debt continue to rise, and now stands at over £2.6tr - the highest figure in postwar history. Britain’s debt rose above 100 per cent of GDP for the first time since March 1961, and currently stands at 101.2 per cent of GDP.
The cost of the pandemic drove the UK's gross government debt up to £2.4tr. GDP, meanwhile, continues to fluctuate month-on-month. 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."
Pledge four: Falling NHS waiting lists
"NHS waiting lists will fall and people will get the care they need more quickly."
Update - November 2023: No significant inroads have been made into the NHS’ long waiting lists this year. The health service has seen a number of strikes from a range of its workforce take place this year, which Rishi Sunak recently said makes the fulfillment of his pledge “more challenging”.
Images of beds lining hospital corridors and stories of loved ones lost to treatable conditions have dominated the papers in recent months, as GPs, hospitals and ambulances struggle to meet demand. According to the latest figures, over 7.7 million people are waiting for elective treatment. A recent analysis from the Health Foundation charity predicts that, based on current trends, 8 million people could be on the NHS waiting list by summer 2024.
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."
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.