Problems mount as Rishi Sunak reaches 100 days as UK PM

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has angry unions to the left of him, anxious Conservative Party MPs to the right and, in the middle, millions of voters he must win over to avert electoral defeat.

It’s a daunting situation for Mr Sunak, who on Thursday marks 100 days in office, more than twice the number of his ill-fated predecessor, Liz Truss.

Installed as Conservative leader after Ms Truss’ plan for huge tax cuts sparked panic, the 42-year-old Mr Sunak calmed markets and averted economic meltdown after he became prime minister on October 25.

Next, Britain’s youngest leader for two centuries – and its first prime minister of South Asian heritage – has promised to tame inflation, get the economy growing, ease pressure on the healthcare system and “restore the integrity back into politics” after years of scandals under former prime minister Boris Johnson.

Easier said than done.

Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government think tank, said Mr Sunak had succeeded in overcoming the impression that the UK “had a completely lunatic government”.

“You would chalk that up as the first thing that he had on his to-do list,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s slightly hard to see concrete achievements.”

Mr Sunak is a former UK treasury chief, and his top priority has been the country’s economic malaise. GDP remains smaller than it was before the coronavirus pandemic, and the International Monetary Fund forecast this week that the UK will be the only major economy to contract this year, shrinking by 0.6 per cent.

Mr Sunak blames global forces – disruption from the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Critics say the elephant in the room is Brexit, which has led to a sharp reduction in trade between the UK and the European Union.

Mr Sunak, a long-time advocate of Britain’s departure from the bloc, insisted on Wednesday that the cost-of-living crisis had “nothing to do with Brexit”.

Whatever the causes, Mr Sunak has little economic room to manoeuvre. Annual inflation hit a four-decade high of 11.1 per cent in October and remained at a painful 10.5 per cent in December.

The UK is in the midst of its biggest wave of strikes in decades as nurses, paramedics, teachers, border agents and other workers seek pay increases to offset the soaring cost of living.

Meanwhile, a faction inside the Conservative Party is pushing for immediate tax cuts to encourage growth, despite the damage done by “Trussonomics” just months ago.

“We need growth or our debts will get bigger,” MP Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative leader, said this week. “Targeted tax reductions will help achieve that.”

Mr Sunak is resisting both unions and tax-cutting Tories. He argues that double-digit public sector pay raises would drive inflation even higher and “the best tax cut right now is a cut in inflation”.

Inflation battle

Economists say UK inflation will likely fall during 2023, allowing Mr Sunak to meet a key pledge. Other goals are likely to be harder to achieve.

He is seeking to improve relations with the EU, and both sides have made progress on resolving a Northern Ireland trade rules dispute that has burdened businesses and shuttered the regional government in Belfast.

But any agreement will anger Conservative eurosceptics, who are likely to see rapprochement with Brussels as a betrayal of Brexit. A compromise also faces opposition from Northern Ireland’s unionists, who say post-Brexit customs checks undermine Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

Mr Sunak has also struggled to rid the Conservative Party of its reputation for scandal and sleaze.

A member of his cabinet, Gavin Williamson, quit in November over bullying claims. On Sunday, Sunak fired party chair Nadhim Zahawi for failing to come clean about a multimillion-dollar tax dispute.

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab is being investigated over allegations he bullied civil servants, which he denies.

‘Too weak’

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer alleged on Wednesday that Mr Sunak was “too weak” to tackle bad behaviour.

UK voters haven’t had their say on Mr Sunak, who was chosen as party leader by the 357 Conservative MPs. The government doesn’t have to call an election until late 2024, so Mr Sunak might have time on his side.

Or, he might not. The Conservatives are trailing 20 or more points behind Labour in opinion polls, and poor results in May’s local elections could spur calls for another change of leader.

Some Conservatives hanker for the return of Mr Johnson, whose final words to parliament as prime minister – “Hasta la vista, baby” – hinted at a comeback.

Some analysts say it might be too late for any Conservative leader to avoid defeat. An Ipsos poll this week found 66 per cent of respondents wanted a change of governing party. Only 10 per cent thought the Conservatives had done a good job.

Steven Fielding, emeritus professor of politics at the University of Nottingham, likened the mood to the final years of John Major’s government, wiped away by Tony Blair’s Labour election landslide in 1997 that ended 18 years of Conservative rule.

“People are just waiting for them to go,” Fielding said. Mr Sunak “is trying his best, but people aren’t listening”.

Topics: Rishi Sunak
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