British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s 100-day milestone in office comes at a tumultuous time when thousands of workers in key sectors such as education, healthcare and transportation are on strike, the Brexit negotiations need work, and key figures in the Cabinet are under pressure over misconduct allegations.
When Sunak, an Indian-origin investment banker-turner-politician, took charge as the UK’s first PM of colour on October 25, he was the third Conservative leader in a year to move into 10 Downing Street. Former prime minister Boris Johnson’s tenure was marred by corruption scandals, while his successor Liz Truss was in office for a mere 50 days. The UK was still dealing with the aftermath of the devastating Covid-19 pandemic, which killed over 2.17 lakh people. Britons were reeling under the high cost of living, driven by the disruption to global supply chains and the energy crisis brought on by the Russia-Ukraine war.
In his first-ever speech as the Prime Minister, Sunak promised to run the country with “integrity, professionalism and accountability” at every level. His manifesto included “a stronger NHS, better schools, safer streets, control of borders, and protection of the environment,” among others.
Over three months later, his performance in each of these sectors has been mixed.
Cabinet woes, workers’ strikes
Almost immediately after he took charge, Sunak’s pledge to uphold integrity came under fire over his choice to include Gavin Williamson, Dominic Raab, and Suella Braverman in key posts in the Cabinet. Williamson and Raab have been accused of bullying civil servants and Baverman had resigned from the Truss-cabinet over security breach allegations. Though Williamson quit the post weeks later, Raab’s role as the Deputy Prime Minister has opened up Sunak for criticism from the Labour party, who termed him “too weak” to act on the bullying allegations. Last week, Sunak had to dismiss Conservative Party chair Nadhim Zahawi over tax allegations after initially defending him.
Besides internal politics, a key challenge of his tenure has been the ongoing strikes by the public sector workers in Britain and climate groups. Beginning with the nurses and ambulance workers, then the rail crews, and now teachers, lakhs of workers in the country have gone on strike for better pay and benefits, crippling public transport, short-staffing hospitals and potentially shutting down schools, thus disrupting normal life.
Though he has been reluctant to give into the demands of the unions, Sunak struck a positive note while speaking to health workers a few days ago. “The things that happened before I was prime minister, I can’t do anything about,” he said, as per a report by the news agency Associated Press. “What I think you can hold me to account for is how I deal with the things that arise on my watch.”
This is an attitude that Sunak, who served as the finance minister in Boris Johnson’s government, has maintained when it comes to dealing with the economic crisis that the country is facing as well. Britain’s annual inflation, which hit a record 11.1 per cent in October, has remained at 10.5 per cent as of December, and the recently released IMF report has forecast that the UK economy will shrink by 0.6 per cent. In light of the high living costs, a section of the Conservative party has called for tax cuts, which Sunak has ruled out. He has instead focussed on bringing down inflation, which economists have said is likely to fall in 2023. “I’m a Conservative, I want to cut your taxes … I wish I could do that tomorrow, quite frankly,” he said at a public meeting in Lancashire, reported The Guardian. But we can’t do that because the Ukraine war and Covid-19 pandemic had left the state of public finances not where it needs to be, he said.
Foreign policy challenges
On the global front, managing the fallout of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and that of the Brexit on UK’s trade sector dominated Sunak’s first days at the office.
One of his first gestures after assuming the PM post was a surprise visit to Ukraine, where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “Britain knows what it means to fight for freedom. We are with you all the way,” he wrote on Twitter after the trip, during which he pledged £50m in aid to Ukraine. Following the visit, Zelenskyy publicly squashed rumours that he preferred Johnson, who was a vocal supporter of Ukraine, over Sunak.
Britain knows what it means to fight for freedom.
We are with you all the way @ZelenskyyUa 🇺🇦🇬🇧
Британія знає, що означає боротися за свободу.
Ми з вами до кінця @ZelenskyyUa 🇺🇦🇬🇧 pic.twitter.com/HsL8s4Ibqa
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) November 19, 2022
Charting UK’s relationship with the European Union post-Brexit has been a trickier task so far. Sunak’s focus thus far has been on nailing down the nuances of a deal over the Northern Ireland Protocol. UK-based media have been reporting that an agreement is in the works and that the US playing a key role in brokering it, though a formal announcement is yet to be made. If finalised, it would be a significant feat, but could also open him up to criticism from the hardliners in his party who are quick to protest any dilution of the Brexit ideals, real or perceived. He will also be under pressure from Northern Ireland’s unionists who fear that any custom checks (as required by the EU) will send a wrong message as to its standing in the UK.
What does the public think?
Sunak’s status as one of the richest people to occupy Number 10 and his ‘corporate man’ persona have been largely balanced by the level of stability he brought to the role after years of turmoil at the top. Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government think tank, told Associated Press that 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.”
His family’s million-dollar fortune (his wife Akshata Murthy is the heir to tech giant Infosys) has often opened him up to criticism of being out of touch with the common man. In January 2023, he was criticised for his “recklessly expensive habits” after it was reported that he took an RAF flight for an official domestic trip thrice in 10 days. Sunak, however, defended himself, saying: “I travel around so I can do lots of things in one day, I’m not travelling around just for my own enjoyment,” as per a report in The Guardian. A few days later, he was fined for not wearing a seatbelt in a moving vehicle after he posted a selfie video on Instagram.
Nevertheless, Sunak has enough time to turn things around before the general elections next year. An Ipsos poll taken between January 18 and January 25 said that more than half the population is unhappy with his premiership, with 55 per cent of Britons saying they are dissatisfied with the job Sunak is doing as Prime Minister. The strongest contender for his post, at the moment, seems to be Labour party leader Keir Starmer. The Ipsos poll conducted telephone interviews of a representative sample of 1,001 adults aged 18+ across Great Britain and found that 39 per cent of the public think Labour party leader Keir Starmer would be a capable Prime Minister while only 33 per cent thought that of Sunak, which is a remarkable turnaround from November when Sunak led Stramer by 41 per cent to 35 per cent.
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