One year of Rishi Sunak in Downing Street: the Conservative Party fails to take flight | International

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A year after being elected leader of the Conservative Party and becoming Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (October 25, 2022), Rishi Sunak's only political assets are comparison and fatigue. The comparison, obviously, with two predecessors like Boris Johnson or Liz Truss, compared to whom, despite all his defects and errors, Sunak comes out better. And fatigue, that of some conservative deputies who no longer have the desire or alternatives to rebel again and overthrow what would be their fourth leader in four years.

“Its mission was to introduce a certain degree of stability [en la economía del país, después del hundimiento de su credibilidad provocado por Truss] and I think he has achieved it. In the position of prime minister he has shown credibility and capacity, but now he needs to present a vision for the future,” demands John Hayes, a veteran Conservative MP who also chairs the current Common Sense (Common Sense) of the parliamentary group, a group of at least fifty parliamentarians tories historically eurosceptic, defenders of Brexit and very right-wing in their approaches. “We need to know what the current purpose of the Conservative Party is, gain a real sense of the direction we are going, and be more conservative, not less,” argues Hayes.

Beyond his lurches, his opportunistic turns, his bad luck and, also, some of his successes during these months, Sunak's main problem is his inability - like that of the rest of his party colleagues - to reinvent himself after thirteen years in the power. All internal currents have tried their luck, without success: social conservatism, with its doses of austerity, of David Cameron; Theresa May's moderate line, forced to implement a Brexit in which she did not fully believe; the histrionic and, in the end, catastrophic populism of Boris Johnson; or the extreme 'Thatcherite' neoliberalism of Liz Truss, which sank the pound sterling in a few days.

Rishi Sunak was the lifeline by discarding for some deputies who saw their seats and their salaries in danger, despite the fact that he was never liked by the members. Citizens approved his initial efforts, and that of his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, to right the economy. His 'autumn budget', which involved more than 63 billion euros in new taxes and public spending cuts, left the most painful measures for the following year, and was applauded by the markets. But the new prime minister inherited a country with skyrocketing inflation, and a citizenry fed up with the cost of living crisis. The strikes of nurses and doctors, train and bus personnel, postmen, teachers and even lawyers, meant hundreds of thousands of hours of work lost in a country that was already the slowest in the G-7 to recover its level. pre-pandemic economic.

The five promises

With the technocratic mentality of his university education and his American experience in the world of finance, Sunak – the first politician of Indian origin to occupy Downing Street, although the country barely celebrated that milestone – wanted to test his performance as prime minister against to five concrete, measurable promises. He had announced, upon coming to power, a new Government marked by “integrity, professionalism and accountability at all levels.” It was enough at first to distance himself from Johnson and Truss, and to define his own personality by contrast, but it was not enough. Citizens wanted concrete results, and soon.

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These were his five commitments: halve inflation; getting the British economy growing again; lower public debt; reduce waiting lists in the National Health Service (NHS, in its acronym in English) and, the issue that has most defined this mandate, put a stop to the arrival to the coasts of southern England of small boats with irregular immigrants.

Some of them will be fulfilled on their own, more as a matter of luck or inertia than of political commitment. Inflation, which during the first three months of Sunak's term was 10.7%, stood at 6.7% last September, and the Bank of England is confident that it will fall to 5% by the end of the year. The economy, it was learned a couple of months ago, had grown more than initially estimated and the Government was able to avoid what was technically a recession. The debt, for the moment, remains unchanged. And NHS waiting lists have even gotten worse.

The great fiasco of the Sunak Government, however, has been its fierce fight against irregular immigration. A deportation plan to Rwanda labeled illegal by the courts and that has not taken off. Some giant boats, like the Bibby Stockholm —'floating prisons', according to their critics—that barely house a thousand people, have suffered outbreaks of legionella and are the international shame of the United Kingdom. And a new Illegal Immigration Law (sic) that takes away the right of newcomers to request asylum. “An indiscriminate strategy that will cause the expulsion of thousands of refugees. Last year, three quarters of asylum requests were approved. In the future, all such people will be rejected immediately,” wrote Enver Solomon, the executive director of UK Refugee Council.

The 'successes' in Foreign Policy

Paradoxically for a politician who boasts of belonging to the first batch of those who defended Brexit, it is likely that his most brilliant legacy - if the polls, scheduled for January 2025 at the latest, evict him from Downing Street - will be made up of two rectifications in relations with Brussels. Sunak achieved peace in the bitter dispute regarding the Ireland Protocol (the fit of this British region in the post-Brexit era) when he signed, together with the president of the European Commission, Ursula von Der Leyen, the so-called Windsor Framework Agreement, the last February. And he finally managed to reincorporate the United Kingdom, just a month ago, into the Horizon Europe program for funding scientific projects. Brexit had been a tragedy for British researchers.

His unconditional support for Ukraine, inherited from Johnson, and his absolute alignment with Israel in the recent war with Hamas have placed Sunak at the center of the geopolitical scene. But no one is a prophet in his own land, and as happens in all countries, successes abroad are a consolation and refuge for the head of government that is rarely applauded by his citizens.

The turn to the extreme right

With polls that continue to place the Labor opposition twenty points ahead, and by-elections - the last ones, those last week in the Mid Berdfordshire and Tamworth constituencies - in which Starmer's party has achieved historic victories and a drastic turn in the direction of the vote, Sunak has taken the most desperate path.

Along with a hardening of the anti-immigration discourse, a defense of 'family values' and a delay in his Government's commitments to climate change that borders on denialism, the prime minister tried to appear at the conservative congress in Manchester a month ago as the 'candidate of change', willing to challenge the 'false consensus'.

“By adopting the rhetoric of the extreme right, it has ended up reaping the same result: widespread rejection in the country. “Voters were very clear about who Sunak was, so it has been unintelligent and confusing to try to convince them that he is someone different,” laments former Conservative Minister for Education, and later for Equality, Justine Greening.

The most recent survey of YouGov points out that half of Britons rate Sunak's performance as prime minister as “poor or horrible.” The media that are dedicated to tracking the internal unrest within the conservative parliamentary group already count up to twenty-five letters to the management from deputies who would like a change in leadership. But that figure is anonymous, and is only revealed when it reaches 15% of the deputies (about fifty), the level that triggers an internal motion of censure like the one suffered by Margaret Thatcher or Theresa May.

There doesn't seem to be any desire for heads to roll again. Some, the most rebellious, are already planning a new leadership of the party when, as seems inevitable, it returns to the opposition. Most simply watch Sunak and place the success or failure of the coming months solely on his shoulders.

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