Doubts remain on first anniversary of Rishi Sunak’s ‘priorities’ speech

The deadlines for achieving all his five pledges remain vague, but progress is at risk during the run-up to the general election.

Jonathan Bunn
Thursday 04 January 2024 13:51 GMT
Rishi Sunak faces the prospect of further setbacks to delivering his five priorities (James Manning/PA)
Rishi Sunak faces the prospect of further setbacks to delivering his five priorities (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

The Government’s insistence that the backlog of older asylum claims has been cleared when official figures show thousands of cases remain outstanding has kicked off the first of many cycles of claim and counterclaim that will intensify during what is likely to be an election year.

It is the first anniversary of a speech by Rishi Sunak in which he set out his five pledges and called on the public “to hold my Government and I to account on delivering those goals”.

These priorities, laid out two months after Mr Sunak entered No 10, are set to be the focus of fierce debate and scrutiny in the coming months.

The Prime Minister promised “no tricks, no ambiguity” on the delivery of his five priorities, but the row over asylum claims show figures can be used in different ways in a bid to gain political advantage.

Here the PA news agency examines the Government’s progress on delivery.

– Halve inflation

The pledge to halve inflation by the end of the year always looked straightforward, with forecasts showing this was set to happen.

The latest figures show the aim has probably been met, with inflation falling from 10.7% to 3.9% in November.

However, there are factors which could mean the Government may not benefit as much as it would like from the drop in inflation.

Real household income has also continued to fall over the period according to the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), meaning many voters will not necessarily notice a significant change in there financial circumstances after a prolonged period of household budgets being squeezed.

Therefore, it is difficult to claim the the cost of living has eased, particularly as lower inflation does not mean goods are becoming cheaper, but just that prices are rising at a slower rate.

There is also the question of whether the Government will get the credit for the fall in inflation, with economists suggesting the reduction was largely due to the Bank of England raising interest rates alongside lower energy costs rather than due action by ministers.

Experts have also warned against over-optimism on inflation as it remains well above the Bank of England’s target rate of 2%.

– Grow the economy

Mr Sunak will be relieved the economy outperformed early projections, with both the OBR and Bank of England forecasting early last year that it would contract in 2023.

It is now likely the Government will be able to claim the economy has grown.

The official figure for gross domestic product growth for the year is yet to be published, but economists expect it will be around 0.5%.

However, there are some fears this figure is too optimistic.

Recent revisions to GDP for last year by the Office for National Statistics show growth fell by 0.1% from July to September, meaning it is possible the economy was in technical recession as the year ended.

The general expectation is that growth will be just about positive, but questions will be asked of the Government over the economy’s continuing poor performance.

The priority of simply achieving real terms growth in itself is not considered ambitious, with ONS data showing the economy has only failed to grow annually eight times since 1949.

As part of his pledge on the economy, Rishi Sunak also promised to create “better paid jobs and opportunity across the country”.

But previous forecasts suggest the unemployment rate will have increased in 2023 and average earnings will have fallen just short of inflation across the year.

Expectations on economic performance currently look perilous for the Prime Minister as he prepares for a general election, with both the OBR and Bank of England expecting continued slow growth in 2024 and beyond.

– Reduce debt

The Prime Minister was recently criticised by Robert Chote, chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, who said Mr Sunak’s claim that the Government had reduced national debt was potentially misleading.

This is partly because the latest provisional figures suggest national debt was 97.5% of gross domestic product at the end of November, compared to 95.7% at the same time in 2022.

The issue is complicated by vagueness on the timeframe in which the debt reduction is expected to be achieved, with the OBR projecting this is on course to happen in five years’ time.

But in the shorter term, it is doubtful debt will fall after Chancellor Jeremy Hunt used additional spending headroom on tax cuts in the autumn statement.

It is notable that the Prime Minister emphasised the importance of reducing debt to “secure the future of public services”.

As things stand, public spending plans pencilled in for beyond 2025 suggest real-term annual cuts in spending on services outside the NHS and schools.

– Cut NHS waiting lists

Mr Sunak promised that “NHS waiting lists will fall and people will get the care they need more quickly”.

However, the latest figures show the number of patients waiting for treatments increased from an estimated 6.08 million in January 2023 to 6.44 million in October.

Meanwhile, the number of treatments waiting to be carried out has gone up from 7.21 million in January 2023 to 7.71 million in October, about 7% higher than the start of the year.

Despite some small progress, with the overall waiting list falling on October for the first time last year after a record high in September, various factors have complicated attempts to reduce the backlog.

Record NHS funding and staffing levels have not coincided with expected improvements in productivity across the health system, which some partly blame on underinvestment in infrastructure.

Industrial action has clearly increased the backlog, with hospitals forced to cancel or reschedule two million appointments since December 2022.

Mr Sunak has blamed the strikes for stalling efforts to tackle waiting lists, but the Institute for Government thinktank has said the Government’s approach to negotiations “has likely extended the length and severity of industrial action in the health service”.

– Stop the boats

With the issue causing friction within the Conservative Party, there is heightened pressure on the Prime Minister to make progress on stopping small boats crossing the Channel.

Mr Sunak recently admitted there is now no “precise date” for achieving his aim, as key legislation to overcome the Supreme Court’s objections to the Rwanda policy faces challenges on its way through Parliament.

Provisional Home Office figures show there were 29,437 arrivals in 2023, more than a third (36%) lower than the 45,774 arrivals in 2022.

It is the first time the total number of arrivals has fallen year on year since current records began.

However, the continuing scale of the crossings and the complexities involved in making significant inroads on the pledge means the goal of “stopping the boats” remains a long way off.

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