Eleven months ago, Rishi Sunak set out his five pledges, to not only prove to an electorate that had not returned him that he could still be trusted to deliver for it, but to give it a metric by which to judge his efforts.
Still new to Downing Street, the Prime Minister aimed to draw a contrast with his predecessors. “People don’t want politicians who promise the earth and fail to deliver,” he declared. Voters’ top concerns – halving inflation, NHS waiting lists, stopping the small boats, economic growth, and, erm, the national debt – were his own. His solemn promise: “I fully expect you to hold my government and I to account”.
Unexpectedly and unceremoniously, Sunak has now left those promises hanging. In a speech otherwise devoted to scrapping his hitherto Augustinian approach to tax cuts, the Prime Minister introduced five new commitments. That is despite only one of his existing targets having been hit. The other four also look increasingly unreachable. His chutzpah is admirable, if unwarranted.
Sunak only had an hour to celebrate inflation halving last Wednesday before the Supreme Court rendered his Rwanda policy unworkable. Even then, he was largely taking credit for the handiwork of falling global energy prices and the Bank of England. NHS waiting lists are at 7.8 million, an ugly record. Growth is stagnant; a recession looms. The less said about the national debt, the better.
If the Prime Minister considers that a successful record of delivery, I hope he never has to take a job at Deliveroo. Why is he announcing new targets when the originals haven’t been met? If January’s five are already a noose around his government’s neck, why double their number? And why should any voter who even bothers to notice take these pledges seriously if he doesn’t?
His answer? “Political courage.” Comrades, these are not just any old five new pledges. They are, in fact, “five long-term decisions” for the economy. Their major difference is the likelihood that Sunak will never be held accountable for them. Their timescales stretch past next autumn’s electoral event horizon. Nothing fades faster than a vision of the future. Just ask Milton Keynes.
Nonetheless, it’s nice for the Prime Minister to show us what he’s thinking. What are the new and infamous five? Reducing debt – one of the outstanding pledges that remain unmet – alongside cutting taxes, improving our energy security, backing British businesses by encouraging greater investment, and ensuring every child has access to a world-class education. Motherhood and apple pie only just missed out.
All of these are topics on which Sunak has repeatedly opined. Being Peloton’s answer to Nigel Lawson, his approach was always to put reducing inflation before cutting taxes. Increasing business investment was the core of his Mais lecture. He established a Department for Energy Security in March. His only shared interest with Carol Vorderman is an enthusiasm for cramming Maths into every teen in England
Tax cuts took centre stage yesterday. One can query why Sunak chose to upstage his Chancellor if he couldn’t actually say what the cuts would be. But looking a gift horse in the mouth seems fruitless when the tax burden is at a 70-year high. “We will do so seriously, we will do responsibly, but that time is now here,” he announced. His government’s parsimony has brought inflation down. Now enjoy the fruits of his labours. Kwasi Kwarteng, eat your heart out.
Sunak suggests that the Government’s freedom to announce cuts rests on its admirable doggedness in holding against public sector pay increases. Whilst ministers have confounded some expectations on that front, it has more to do with the rinsing of taxpayers via fiscal drag. Any cuts that do come tomorrow – ConservativeHome is batting for Income Tax or National Insurance – will be lipstick on a pecuniary pig.
Sunak has thus established the contours of his election pitch. By plugging away at Britain’s long-term challenges through an admirable willingness to face up to realities he believes other politicians have ducked, he offers a new Jerusalem of slightly lower taxes, a slightly small state, and a few filled-in potholes where high-speed trains should be. My friends, it’s morning in Southampton.
Perhaps this is why yesterday’s speech was so low-key. A college in Enfield, a year out from a general election. Hardly Trump Tower, is it? Little pre-briefing or gossip had emerged from Downing Street, with no great suggestion to broadcasters or hacks that this was something they should be overly interested in. Sunak himself seemed almost keen to just get it over and done with.
Perhaps this comes from a growing sense on the Prime Minister’s part that backbench restlessness, a darkening international outlook, and the increasing futility of his efforts to book a flight to Rwanda might force him into an early election. Hence he might be making another launch speech sooner rather than later. If not, maybe he just plans to be doing this all again in the spring. Who fancies another five pledges?
Or maybe, just maybe, the reasoning is a little more mundane. His party conference speech, the King’s Speech, last Monday’s reshuffle: how many relaunches can one man take in a month? It must be dispiriting to keep telling the voters you are making tough long-term decisions on their behalf, only for each successive announcement to put you further back in the polls. The ingratitude!
As our Editor has often reminded us, elections boil down to “Safety First” versus “Time for a Change”. Sunak tried offering the latter at conference. But shifting the dial from that failed 30-year consensus came a cropper due to a King’s Speech high on vocab but thin on content followed by the unexpected return of that consensus in human form. Plus ça change.
In the absence of a convincing change narrative, Sunak fell back on trying to frighten voters with a Labour government. Yet his efforts centred on their pledge to borrow £28 billion more for Ed Miliband’s various green boondoggles, which is a policy that Rachel Reeves has already kicked into the long grass. Even then, it only served as an unwelcome reminder of Trussonomics.
Sunak will be pleased to hear that he cannot be accused of being a politician promising the earth and failing to deliver. But that is only because his offer has become so thin. “Vote for me and your taxes might be slightly lower than under that other bloke.” It’s not a slogan that even he appears enthusiastic about. An unfortunate day for his poll ratings to reach their joint lowest since he entered Number 10.
If these new priorities are the basis for next year’s election campaign, 2024 is going to be a very long year. I thus look forward to seeing them being scrapped in the run-up to next spring’s Budget, with little to no progress on them having been made.