Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised on Wednesday to tackle Britain’s most serious problems, from cutting inflation to reducing illegal migration, in a speech aimed at convincing his restive lawmakers he can lead them into the next election.
In a speech that was high on ambition but low on detail, Sunak said his government would build “a better future for our children and grandchildren” and made the possibly risky demand that the public judge him on “the results we achieve”.
He listed “five promises”: halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing debt, cutting National Health Service waiting lists and stopping the small boats that carry illegal migrants across the Channel from France.
It was both a statement of intent and a riposte to critics who doubt whether the 42-year-old former Goldman Sachs analyst and hedge fund partner has the bold ideas needed to fix Britain’s problems and win an election expected next year.
With the opposition Labour Party holding a strong lead in opinion polls, some of his Conservative lawmakers and ministers have for weeks called on Sunak, who took office in October, to set out his vision for pulling Britain out of its tailspin.
Thousands of workers have gone on strike to protest over pay, the health service is in crisis, inflation is hovering around 40-year highs and economists predict a long recession.
Speaking in east London, Sunak said his plans would build a stronger country.
“Those are the people’s priorities. They are your government’s priorities. And we will either have achieved them or not … So, I ask you to judge us on the effort we put in and the results we achieve,” he said.
There was a rub. Sunak said he understood people were looking at 2023 with apprehension and promised to offer reassurance quickly. But he also acknowledged that many issues would require long-term solutions and that his government would only set out new plans “in the coming months”.
That might fuel some criticism in his party that Sunak needs to be more dynamic and less managerial.
Some of the plans Sunak outlined on Wednesday look more achievable than others.
Economists say inflation should fall naturally, but growing the economy and cutting national debt could be more difficult.
While 2024 should bring a return to economic growth, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) last month predicted economic output would only return to its late-2019 level by the end of next year – in other words, five years of lost growth.
The OBR projects that national debt will increase in the coming years, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of economic output.
Record-high waiting lists to get doctors’ appointments might also be tricky to bring down quickly, while slowing migrant boat arrivals will depend on French authorities as well as on London.
Sunak promised to “strain every sinew” and focus on the priorities, saying he wanted most of his pledges to be achieved this year, although reaching targets on immigration and NHS waiting lists and reducing debt might take longer.
On strikes that have all but paralysed parts of the transport system and further strained a health service that is perilously close to collapse, he offered little to those workers wanting pay increases, instead saying the government would make an announcement soon on what it will do next.
“I want people to clearly understand the government’s position: we hugely value public sector workers like nurses, they do incredibly important work,” he said.
Seemingly happier talking about the future, he announced one new policy – a commitment to tackle low numeracy rates by ensuring that all school pupils in England study some form of maths to the age of 18.
Keen to counter those who say his personal wealth and marriage to the daughter of an Indian billionaire make him unable to understand the suffering of many workers in Britain, he said the issue was “personal for me”.
“Every opportunity I’ve had in life began with the education I was so fortunate to receive,” Sunak said.
The speech could not have come sooner for those in his governing Conservative Party who see little chance of winning the next election, and who fear Sunak comes across as more of a technocrat than an inspirational leader.
Daniel Pryor, at the free-market Adam Smith Institute think tank, said Sunak had projected optimism “but voters want proper policies, not prosaic platitudes”.