To woo voters, Rishi Sunak must fix the UK’s ‘palpable economy’

It was one of the most famous soundbites of the Brexit campaign. In a debate on the economic impact of leaving the EU, a heckler in Newcastle shouted at a university professor, “That’s your bloody GDP, not ours”. As Rishi Sunak will soon discover, many Britons still feel the same.

Conservative party strategists, who are eyeing up the winter of 2024 for the next election, want to pull off a fifth consecutive win, against all odds. The hope is that inflation drops back into single digits and that the recession is short and shallow.

In the run-up to the 1992 election Norman Lamont, then chancellor, proclaimed the “green shoots” of recovery; on polling day, the Tories defied all expectations and held on to power. In 2024, Sunak will try to do the same.

But claims of improved statistics will not woo swing voters. What they care about is what you might call the “palpable economy” — the one that really touches people, as opposed to the data-driven one. Sunak needs to focus on the general state and mood of Britain: does the country feel more prosperous than it did at its lowest economic ebb (ie: right now), are the high streets improving, are job opportunities plentiful? And are public services working well?

Become a ySense member and start earning today totally free !

Were there to be an election in the next six months, the answers to all these questions would be negative. Public services are verging on collapse, there’s a spiralling wave of strikes and high streets are filled with boarded-up shops. The mood is miserable. No narrative can overcome what people see and feel.

Turning around this palpable economy should be Sunak’s priority over the next two years. Much of what happens to the actual economy is out of the Tories’ hands. Energy prices will be most affected by events in Ukraine.

But the health service is different. With pressure on hospital beds and A&E services so intense that ambulances can’t get away to attend heart attack sufferers for an hour or more after their emergency call, there is a clear sense that the NHS is broken. It is not for lack of money: chancellor Jeremy Hunt pledged an extra £3.3bn in the Autumn Statement, on top of half a billion already announced to deal with acute issues.

Sunak has installed Steve Barclay, one of his closest allies, to unblock the post-pandemic NHS backlog. Patricia Hewitt, former Labour health secretary, has hopped over the political divide to advise the government on integrating health and social care. But the threat of nurses and ambulance staff striking over Christmas could make the situation even worse. This winter, the best Barclay and Sunak can hope for is survival. By the election, they will want the NHS in noticeably better shape.

It’s a similar tale with the courts system. The backlog of criminal cases is at a record 61,000, with problems exacerbated by strikes. Barristers have now voted — narrowly — to end their industrial action, but tensions remain across the legal sector.

So, too, on the railways. Rolling strikes by train drivers threaten to disrupt the first normal festive season in three years. Mark Harper was installed by Sunak as transport secretary for his more emollient approach to trade unions and regional mayors. The initial signs are positive, but much of the weight of improving this part of the palpable economy rests on his shoulders.

With a nation focused on football, the holidays and anything but politics, the prime minister hopes to use the next six weeks to figure out answers to these almost impossible questions. Holed up in his Downing Street study, government insiders say he is reading his way into a policy platform.

When he emerges in early 2023, no doubt to deliver a set-piece speech defining “Sunakism”, fixing the palpable sense that the country is stalled, if not in decline, has to be central. Optimism is one thing, but what the prime minister really needs is an achievable plan for making life in Britain better.

[email protected]

Source link


Related Articles

Back to top button