Here we are again. Another prime minister, another set of promises, another attempt to rebrand the Conservative Party. Rishi Sunak’s five promises, during his first speech of 2023, have rehashed consistently salient issues in British politics whilst looking to produce clarity on what his government will deliver. The cost-of-living crisis, the national debt, economic growth, NHS waiting lists and the migrant issue are the five pillars on which the Prime Minister is asking us to judge him.

Vague Promises

The Conservatives‘ plan is not difficult to unpack: set five attainable promises and ask the electorate to judge them directly on those, whilst distancing their new leader from Johnson’s messy reign and the enthralling theatre of Liz Truss’ sorry 49-day premiership. The vision set out by Sunak is vague, and it is precisely this ambiguity that may prove effective.

‘We will grow the economy, creating better-paid jobs and opportunity right across the country,’ he states. And how? By cutting inflation which reached over 10 per cent in 2022, a 40-year high. The NHS is also hitting the wrong records, with cancer waiting lists and ambulance response times the worst in history. The bar is low, and so are the ambitions of a government afraid to spend to solve multiple crises.

Even more pressing than the question of ‘how’ is that of ‘when’? Three of the promises do not have time frames while those that do have been predicted already. For instance, inflation has been forecast by the OBR to fall to 3.8% (from an 11.1% peak in 2022) by 2024 — well before Sunak made any such commitment. Despite producing these fairly safe policy promises, the attempted smokescreen is still a risk. If inflation does not fall at the rate expected, and if strikes continue to disrupt NHS services, then those benchmarks may be hard to meet. And even then, it feels as if the five-point plan is avoiding the issues that really matter to the public.

The People’s Priorities

During the hour-long speech, Sunak claimed that his government ‘will always reflect the people’s priorities.’ In that case, his priorities seem to reflect the public mood in a thematic sense. According to YouGov’s tracker, the public view healthcare and the economy as uppermost when it comes to issues facing the country. The main problem for the Tories here is that we can no longer believe their arguments for fiscal constraint after a pandemic that strained our resources whilst demonstrating that money can be found when needed, including for furlough and test-and-trace. Even beyond the pandemic, the neoliberal consensus on careful budgeting has been damaged — look to 2008, where those who argued most for a small state required enormous government intervention. Since then, a decade of austerity has produced almost no tangible benefit whilst leading to over 330,000 excess deaths

It is only within the context of the last thirteen years that we can view what matters to this country. During a cost-of-living crisis which will likely lead to the biggest drop in living standards on record, people want and need tangible support that will sustain them directly. There is a reason that over half a million have been out on strike over the Christmas period, and it is not related to small boats crossing the channel. There is only so far you can take a country run on the goodwill of those on the frontline. Once again, the Conservative government is attempting to pull the wool over the public’s eyes by distancing itself from the support that could help workers right now. Whether this is reflected in the wage packet — through support on energy bills which continue to rise — or the rejuvenation of Britain’s public sector, the Prime Minister must act on the issues that will see actual improvement in the lives of the British people.

Migrant Blaming

Beyond the NHS and the economy, immigration and asylum remain high on the Prime Minister’s agenda. Immigration is hardly a fresh topic of debate in British politics. Indeed, it remains a convenient scapegoat that is not confined to the blue corner in Westminster. This is why the latest promise feels empty and callous. It attacks migrant rights with the intention of distracting from the very real crises facing Britain. Predictably, Sunak made no mention of the plights of those crossing the channel or why people might be forced to take such a dangerous route to the UK (more accurately, the lack of safe ones provided by Britain). Instead, we are urged to rehash this tired debate that will have very little bearing on the quality of life for the average British person. The country is sinking. An exhaustive talk of small boats won’t save us.

With the Conservative Party flagging in the polls, this attempt to control the narrative is unsurprising. If Sunak can persuade voters that the migrant ‘crisis’ is what really matters — rather than being stuck between heating, eating and a more-than-likely recession — then this government may survive.

Presently, this may seem unlikely. But the Conservatives are masters at disaster capitalism. If they can set the tone and point the finger away from their own follies heading into 2024, then a resurgence is not unrealistic.

To cling on to power, our Prime Minister claims he will employ ‘no tricks’ and afford ‘no ambiguity.’ There are many ways I could describe the current Government, but clarity of thought and sober realism is not one of them. 

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