LONDON — Rishi Sunak is having a good 2023 — so far.
Since taking office late last year, the British prime minister has been wading through the intimidating in-tray he inherited from his predecessors Liz Truss and Boris Johnson.
After the chaos of Johnson’s scandal-stuffed time in office and the nightmare Truss weeks in Downing Street, Sunak’s No. 10 operation has attempted to emphasize the new leader’s competence and apparent capacity for problem-solving. So how does he stack up?
Let POLITICO guide you — ably assisted by the refrain from classic kids’ TV show Bob the Builder, natch.
The vast majority of Sunak’s Tory MPs greeted his Windsor Framework deal on post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland with glee, seeing it as salving one of the remaining running sores left by the U.K.’s exit from the EU.
The striking of the deal in February even saw the British PM appear in a pally joint press conference with the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen — something difficult to imagine under either of his predecessors.
Sunak pitched the deal as one which could finally bring back power-sharing in Northern Ireland, after the region’s arch-unionist DUP walked out of the Stormont assembly over the NI protocol.
Can he fix it? Yes he can: The deal largely united all but the most ferocious Brexiteers on Sunak’s backbenchers, was praised by Joe Biden, Sinn Féin and Labour, and was seen as a compromise that could resolve a previously intractable issue.
No, he can’t: The DUP — which can essentially decide whether Stormont returns or not — is yet to give its blessing, with leader Jeffrey Donaldson setting out his “key concerns” this week and a Commons vote to come next week amid a bit of backbench grumbling. Plus, Boris Johnson isn’t keen.
Small boats, stopped?
Like the two prime ministers before him, Sunak named thwarting mounting irregular cross-Channel migration in small boats as one of his key priorities.
Many Tory MPs were delighted when the PM unveiled hard-hitting legislation on the issue earlier in March, coupled with an expensive deal with France to increase patrols across the English Channel.
The government admitted its Illegal Migration Bill will bump up against human rights law — but that’s half the charm for a Conservative Party that likes a fight with what some in its ranks see as leftie lawyers.
Can he fix it? Yes he can: The bill sailed through the Commons without a single Tory rebelling, despite unease from some liberals in the party. Plus, the measures got a more-than-positive write-up across the right-leaning newspapers Sunak is keen to pitch to. His deal with Emmanuel Macron capped a bromance-heavy meeting in Paris that again would have been hard to imagine a year ago.
No, he can’t: Cross-channel migration is a complex and nuanced issue, and government efforts to reduce numbers have been less-than-successful so far. No asylum seekers have so far been sent to Rwanda, almost a year on from the government striking a controversial deal to send them to the central African country. There may be concern about the issue among voters, but not everyone — think the United Nations refugee agency, the EU, and Gary Lineker for starters — sees the crackdown approach in the same terms.
Sunak hoped for a positivity hat-trick when his chancellor stepped up to deliver the government’s budget this week.
With the aim of stabilizing the economy and reversing some of the grimmer projections, Jeremy Hunt’s “budget for growth” delivered a big pledge on childcare, moves on business investment and a contentious pensions shake-up aimed at bolstering the struggling NHS workforce.
The triumphant Hunt came armed with improved forecasts for the year from the OBR, the U.K.’s fiscal watchdog, which said the U.K. would dodge a technical recession this year.
Can he fix it? Yes he can: Since the last mini-budget and Liz Truss’ unfunded tax cuts saw the pound tank and the markets recoil in horror — the next full-fat fiscal event to follow had a low bar to clear.
But more-positive-than-expected forecasts for GDP this year gave Tories something to cheer, Hunt made a string of significant policy pledges, and, in the crucial 48 hours since, none of the measures have had to be jettisoned in a panic.
No, he can’t: Britain’s epic cost-of-living squeeze is going nowhere. There have been rows over the small print measures in the budget — including on an expensive pensions giveaway Labour vowed to reverse. And fresh New Statesman polling shows a public not exactly falling over themselves to cheer the plan.
Winter of discontent, thawing?
Sunak arrived in office with Britain facing a wave of strikes as workers staged rolling walkouts to press for higher pay after years of public sector pay restraint.
Teachers, nurses, firefighters, ambulance drivers, railway workers, civil servants — you name it, they were taking to the picket lines, in the biggest round of walkouts for decades.
Can he fix it? Yes he can: After initially opting to clobber trade unions with new legislation aimed at making it harder for them to down tools, industrial relations seemed to take on a much less confrontational tone this week.
On Friday, ministers started “intensive” talks with education unions — just a day after a National Health Service pay breakthrough.
Before that, firefighters paused strike action after getting a new pay offer. RMT, the rail workers’ union, reined in some strike action after getting a new pay offer from Network Rail, although disputes are ongoing with train companies themselves.
No, he can’t: With many different unions in play and an offer that remains below the health reps’ opening gambit, NHS workers could still reject the government’s offer. Talks with the National Education Union are just getting going this weekend and may come to nothing.
Plus, the Public and Commercial Services Union confirmed Friday that it’s gearing up for five weeks of fresh strike action which will hit passport offices across the U.K. While inflation may be coming down, pay packets continue to take a beating — providing fertile ground for more discontent.
Scottish independence, neutralized?
Nicola Sturgeon is imminently preparing to leave office, after almost a decade at the top of Scottish politics.
In her role as the pro-independence first minister of Scotland, Sturgeon was a consistent thorn in the side of the four Tory prime ministers before Sunak. When she quit she cited the personal toll of the job and said it was the right time to let someone else take over.
Sturgeon’s declining popularity in Scotland and her SNP was largely down to internal divisions on the route to independence and the poor performance of public services.
But Sunak arguably also played a part with his decision this year to block the Scottish government’s contentious gender reforms, a move that triggered open debate on the plan and saw Sturgeon come under increased scrutiny in the weeks before her resignation.
Can he fix it? Yes he can: As the still widely-popular figurehead of a pro-independence movement, Sturgeon’s exit is a set-back for the SNP and a boon for Sunak and those trying to keep Scotland in the U.K. Candidates vying to replace her have publicly clashed, while there has been a recent decline in support for the SNP and Scottish independence, according to opinion polling.
No, he can’t: The SNP’s current low polling ebb would still see them remain Scotland’s largest and most successful party by some distance. The more patient — and morbid — supporters of Scottish nationalism point to changing demographics which suggest older, generally pro-Union, voters are dying and being replaced by younger, more pro-independence, voters — meaning their dream ain’t dead yet.
Boris Johnson, neutered?
When Boris Johnson dramatically pulled out of the leadership race that saw Sunak installed in No 10, the received wisdom was that the former prime minister would still be a troublesome presence for the new regime from the backbenches — particularly given the way some Conservative MPs still hold a candle for Johnson and his election-winning ways.
It hasn’t quite worked out like that.
Can he fix it? Yes he can: Johnson’s long-awaited intervention on the Windsor Framework came and was pretty quickly forgotten. The former PM told a room of bankers he would find it difficult to vote for the deal — a sentiment not openly shared by more big names on the Tory benches.
With stories about Johnson nominating his own dad for a knighthood and the Partygate scandal also rumbling on in the headlines, there is little momentum yet among Tories for the triumphant comeback he seemingly craves — especially with Johnson facing a parliamentary grilling on Partygate next week.
No, he can’t: Count out another Johnson comeback at your peril.