There were no posters, banners or full-page advertisements in newspapers by sycophantic ministers thanking the prime minister for his service to the nation on completing one year in office, but that is perhaps because it is not the British way of doing things. Instead, Rishi Sunak marked his first anniversary as Prime Minister with his office releasing a photograph of him working at his desk with a slice of cake and a cup of tea as he readies himself for the day ahead.
Though Sunak tends to wear his religion on his sleeve, or rather on his wrist, if the first Indian-origin, Hindu PM of the UK held a puja at his home to celebrate the anniversary, then the public will not be aware because religion in Britain is still considered a private affair.
On October 25, Sunak’s office released a slick, glossy but rather short video – 45 seconds long to be precise – on social media highlighting his achievements during his first year in office. It trumpeted policy changes on Brexit with the revised Windsor Framework deal with the European Union (EU), the Prime Minister’s new approach to net zero, education and the NHS but it all flashed by so fast that you were hard pressed to understand what his achievements really were.
X (Twitter) users were quick to fact-check the claims and point out that some of them hadn’t actually happened yet.
The montage had the accompanying caption: “We’ve achieved a lot in the year since I became PM. But be in no doubt, there’s so much more to do”. The video ends with the caption “So what can a country achieve in 52 weeks? Watch this space”. The all-important question is does Sunak have another 52 weeks in Downing Street?
Steady the ship
During the leadership contest last year Sunak was pitched as the sensible, pragmatic candidate, the ex-banker who would bring his technocratic knowhow to running the country. After the mess made by Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, Sunak was seen by many Conservative MPs as the competent alternative who would douse the flames and “steady the ship”. In the first few months of his premiership Sunak did that successfully.
When he entered 10 Downing Street last year, 25 per cent of the British public expected Sunak to be a “good” or “great” Prime Minister, 29 per cent thought he would be “average” and another 29 per cent expected him to be “poor” or “terrible”. But a year later, Sunak has not lived up to even these modest expectations and his ratings have dropped drastically. Half of Britons (50 per cent) say he has been a poor or terrible PM, while only 11 per cent think he has been good.
Handling the economy was the main issue that Sunak had to deal with then and 50 per cent of Britons had confidence in his decision-making abilities in this area. However, this trust has evaporated and today some 62 per cent have little or no confidence in his economic aptitude. The cost-of-living crisis has not abated. In fact, it has gotten worse with struggling working families having to pay higher interest rates on mortgages (home loans), salaries not keeping pace with inflation such that almost everyone feels worse off than they did last year.
In January 2023, Sunak announced his famous five pledges – halve inflation; grow the economy; reduce debt; cut NHS waiting lists and stop the boats – and he invited the people to hold him to his word. The aim was to show a decisive change of approach from the chaos of his predecessors’ regimes.
Unfortunately, Sunak has struggled to deliver on any of the pledges and this failure has become the defining part of his premiership. It has meant that his trust ratings have plummeted. At least 71 per cent of voters do not trust him to solve the cost-of-living crisis, 72 per cent distrust him on cutting NHS waiting lists, particularly as the wait just gets longer and a whopping 75 per cent do not trust him on immigration.
Free Trade Deal with India and immigration
Having entered 10 Downing Street on Diwali last year, Sunak had promised to sign the elusive Free Trade Deal with India by this Diwali hoping that it would give his premiership something good to crow about, but it is highly unlikely that it will be achieved even by the end of 2023. The sticking point with the FTA is in fact immigration. The Narendra Modi government is demanding more work visas for Indians in return for opening up the country’s markets.
However, home secretary Suella Braverman, darling of the Conservative Right, is determined to decrease legal immigration to tens of thousands as well as send off illegal immigrants and asylum seekers coming into the UK on boats, to Rwanda. She has already called out Indians as the largest nationality of ‘overstayers’ of visas and has put her foot down on increasing their visa quotas.
Despite that at least 1,500 Indians are entering Britain on work permits every week, the largest number from any country. The closest second is Nigerians with 600 work permits per week, while all the EU countries together manage to send 500 people per week on work permits. Indians have also become the second largest group who are making the English Channel crossing on boats as illegal immigrants or asylum seekers.
If the FTA is finally signed some time next year, it will be a worthy achievement but it will not sway British voters in the same way that immigration will at this late stage with just a year left before the general election has to be called.
Not on an election-winning footing
Sunak’s biggest failure has been that he has been unable to place the Conservative Party on an election-winning footing. In the 2019 election, Johnson had been able to win the Tories 365 seats in a House of 650 members, in what many Conservatives saw as a mandate for Johnson and his manifesto. But by the time Johnson was forced to resign in July 2022, the Tory Party had already become unpopular thanks to Partygate, lies and scandals.
Opinion polls were showing the main Opposition Labour Party to be faring much better than the Conservatives. Sunak has not been able to turn this around.
Results of by-elections have shown how unpopular the Tories have become. Under Sunak’s watch, Conservatives have lost four out of five safe seats in by-elections and held onto the fifth one by the skin of their teeth in the last four months. An opinion poll on the eve of Sunak’s first anniversary showed Labour commanding twice as much support as the Conservatives, polling at 48 per cent versus 24 per cent - figures that point to a landslide victory for Labour and a rout for Sunak.
There is another anniversary on October 25that may be worrying Sunak a bit more than the lack of celebrations for his first year in office and that is the end of the amnesty for the change in Tory leadership. The Conservative party rules say that a leader cannot be challenged until 12 months after they are chosen. Now Tory backbenchers are once more free to fire off letters of no confidence to the chairman of the 1922 Committee. There are rumours that as many as 25 MPs are ready to submit letters. It requires 15% of the Parliamentary party to submit letters to force a leadership contest which in the current scenario means 53 MPs have to submit no confidence letters.
Sunak has enough enemies in the Conservative party to make the magic number of 53, but what remains to be seen is if they will actually shoot off the letters. With the Tories popularity at an all-time low, there may not be anyone who wants to take up the unenviable task of turning the Party’s fortunes round. It just might be easier to let Sunak become the fall guy.