Article updated December 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 has tracked data on the five pledges to see whether his promises are being fulfilled. No tricks, no ambiguity, as he put it.
Update – December 2023: As the year draws to a close, it is clear that Sunak cannot claim to have met the majority of his pledges to the public. Inflation has more than halved; but the economy has had limited growth; debt is not falling; NHS waiting lists have remained stagnant; and while there are fewer small boat arrivals, the Home Office is still dealing with a mass backlog of asylum claims, and the government’s plans to deport claimants to Rwanda was blocked by the Supreme Court earlier this year.
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.
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 - December 2023: The latest figures show that inflation fell to 3.9 per cent in the year to November, as measured by the Consumer Price Index. After inflation fell to 4.6 per cent in October, Sunak claimed that he and his government had "delivered" on the pledge to halve inflation, made when year-on-year price increases stood at 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." (Global supply chains, energy costs, and the interest rate set by the Bank of England, among other factors, also influence inflation.)
It is also important to note that inflation is still comfortably above the 2 per cent target that the Bank of England aims for. Following the Autumn Statement, the OBR (Office for Budget Responsibility) revised its earlier predictions, forecasting that inflation would only fall below the Bank of England’s target during the first half of 2025 – more than a year later than previously thought.
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. 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..
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. 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 - December 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.
But Britain's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has remained stagnant throughout 2023 – remaining at the exact same level in October (indexed at 102.4) as it was in January. It has barely wavered month to month, and even fell 0.3 per cent from October to November.
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, research from the ONS found that there were 160,000 working days lost to labour disputes. 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 - December 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.
Sunak has repeatedly claimed, both in Parliament and on social media, that debt is falling. But statistics clearly show that not to be the case either in absolute or relative terms – general gross government debt is up, and, as noted, debt as a proportion of GDP has reached record levels. According to Number 10, Sunak's claims are in reference to the OBR predicting that debt as a proportion of GDP will fall in the final year of its five-year forecast. “The average person in the street would probably not have interpreted the Prime Minister's claims in the way that his office explained them to us,” Robert Chote, chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, wrote in response to a letter challenging Sunak’s claims.
Chote added: “[The public] would likely have assumed that he was claiming that debt was already falling or that the government's policy decisions had lowered it at the fiscal events – neither of which is the case.”
Pledge four: Falling NHS waiting lists
"NHS waiting lists will fall and people will get the care they need more quickly."
Update - December 2023: No progress has been made on the NHS’s long waiting lists this year. The health service has seen industrial action from several sections of its usually strike-reluctant workforce in 2023 (bookended by junior doctors striking in the week before Christmas), which Rishi Sunak said made the fulfilment 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."
Update - December 2023: 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.
There is a backlog of over 165,000 asylum claims the Home Office is yet to deal with. Sunak pledged to clear older claims by the end of the year, but over 18,000 dated cases are still to be resolved. The latest figures from September 2023 show that over 75 per cent of people who have put in an asylum claim have been waiting more than six months for a decision.
The government’s plans to deport those arriving on small boats to Rwanda “will not” act as a deterrent to those who may cross the channel, according to research that consulted 40 organisations that work with people who interact with the asylum system. The plans may lead people to take riskier journeys and drive them away from support networks, according to a report put together by the Refugee Council charity. “The government’s plans are causing huge distress to vulnerable people and are pushing them into unsafe and dangerous situations,” said Enver Solomon, the CEO of Refugee Council.