British leader Rishi Sunak marks a year in office with little to celebrate
LONDON (AP) — United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak marked a year in office on Wednesday with little to celebrate as wars on the international stage make a grim backdrop to his domestic challenges.
On top of that, another year seems to be haunting his Conservative Party: 1996.
Then — as now — the party had been in power for well over a decade, but opinion polls put the opposition ahead and Conservative dissent and scandal dominated the headlines. The following year, voters booted the Tories out, delivering a landslide victory to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour Party.
Many Conservatives fear the party faces the same fate in an election that must be called by the end of 2024. The Conservatives trail between 15 and 20 points behind Labour in opinion polls — a gap that has barely moved during Sunak’s year in office.
Research released Wednesday by pollster Ipsos found 65 per cent of respondents thought the Conservatives did not deserve to be re-elected, while only 19 per cent felt they did.
The latest Israel-Hamas conflict, now in its third week, and Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, have added to Sunak’s challenges.
“I know this year has been tough,” Sunak said in a message marking the anniversary. “And there is still work to be done to help hardworking families across the country, but I’m proud of the steps we’ve made.”
A little over a year ago, Sunak thought he had lost his chance to be prime minister. In September 2022 he lost a Conservative leadership contest to Liz Truss, who took over as prime minister from the scandal-dogged Boris Johnson.
Then, Truss announced a budget that included billions in uncosted tax cuts and spooked the financial markets. The value of the pound plunged, the cost of government borrowing soared — and Truss announced her resignation after just six weeks in office. The party chose Sunak to replace her, and he became Britain’s third prime minister of the year.
“Some mistakes were made,” Sunak said diplomatically as he stood outside 10 Downing Street on October 25, 2022. “And I have been elected as leader of my party and your prime minister, in part, to fix them.”
He promised his government would “have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.”
The markets calmed, and Sunak managed to patch up relations with the European Union, which had frayed during Britain’s testy divorce from the bloc.
He announced five goals for his government, including halving inflation, which peaked at 11.1 per cent in late 2022, getting the economy growing, reducing a health care backlog and curbing the number of migrants reaching Britain across the English Channel in small boats.
There has been some progress – inflation was 6.7 per cent in September and the economy is growing, albeit only by about 0.5 per cent on the year. But the health system remains overburdened, the government’s plans to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda as a deterrent is mired in the courts, and millions of people in Britain are still struggling to pay their bills.
Sunak has fought back by trying to reinvent himself as a shake-things-up populist. He announced he was slowing moves to phase out fossil fuels in order to save taxpayers money, curtailed an overbudget high-speed railway project and announced plans to effectively ban smoking for the next generation with a gradual ban on buying cigarettes.