LONDON — Rishi Sun has been Prime Minister of Great Britain for a month. In the turbulent world of UK politics in 2022, this is an achievement.
Sunak, who took office a month ago on Friday, October 25, has strengthened the nation after the brief tenure of her predecessor, Liz Truss. Britain’s first black prime minister, Sunak stabilized the economy, reassured allies from Washington to Kiev and even the European Union after years of fighting between Britain and the bloc.
But Sunak’s challenges are just beginning. It faces a slowing economy, a cost-of-living crisis — and a governing Conservative Party that is fragile and increasingly unpopular after 12 years in power.
The polls bring good news and bad news for Sun. The public likes the 42-year-old former investment banker, but his party is another matter.
In the Ipsos poll, 47% of the respondents said that they liked the Prime Minister, while 41% did not like him.
“It’s definitely better than what Boris Johnson did earlier this year,” said Gideon Skinner, head of political research at Ipsos. But he said Sunak’s popularity “shows no signs of rubbing off on the Conservative Party brand”.
In the same survey, the Conservative Party was favored by just 26 percent and disapproved by 62 percent – the party’s worst showing in 15 years. The Ipsos telephone survey of 1,004 adults can be considered accurate to plus or minus four percentage points.
Many voters welcome Sunak over Truss and his predecessor, Johnson, who resigned in July after three scandal-plagued years in office. However, the party has been in power since 2010, making it difficult for conservatives to avoid blaming the country’s financial woes.
Protracted allegations of misconduct also tarnish the company’s image. On Wednesday, Mr Sun appointed a senior lawyer to investigate allegations of harassment against his deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab.
It is not impossible for the Conservatives to rebuild their popularity before the next election in late 2024. But it won’t be easy. According to current opinion polls, the Labor Party would easily win.
At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Sunak, then Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, became popular by spending billions to support closed businesses and pay the wages of laid-off workers.
Now you must deliver bitter medicine. The British economy is being weighed down by the pandemic, Brexit and especially the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has sent world energy prices soaring.
Millions of people in Britain have seen their energy bills soar, although a cap imposed by the government has prevented even higher prices. Pandemic backlogs and staff shortages have resulted in record waiting times for healthcare in Britain’s NHS.
The situation was made worse by Truss’ ill-advised, unfunded package of tax cuts in September, which torpedoed the UK’s reputation for economic prudence, weakened the pound, raised borrowing costs and prompted urgent central bank intervention. Truss resigned last month after less than two months on the job.
“I fully appreciate how difficult the situation is,” Sunak said in his first address to the nation on Oct. 25, warning of “difficult decisions.”
Last week’s emergency budget helped boost the pound and calm markets — at the cost of a 25 billion pound ($30 billion) tax hike and cuts in public spending.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development forecast this week that the UK economy will shrink by 0.4% in 2023 and grow by just 0.2% in 2024, the worst outlook among the Group of Seven industrialized nations.
WAR IN EUROPE
Boris Johnson’s departure has caused concern in Kiev, where his steadfast support for Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion has won admiration and respect.
Britain has given Ukraine 2.3 billion pounds ($2.8 billion) in military aid since the start of the war, more than any country except the United States, and has lobbied its allies to do more to help Kyiv.
Sunak traveled to Kiev last week to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky that Britain’s policy would not change under his leadership. “I’m proud of the way the UK stood by you from the beginning,” Sunak told Zelenskyy. “And I’m here today to say that the UK will continue to stand by Ukraine.”
London continues to support aid, announcing last week that it would supply Ukraine with anti-aircraft weapons, anti-drone technology and three Sea King helicopters.
But while Ukraine’s support is assured, defense spending may shrink. Sunak rejected Truss’ commitment to raise defense spending to 3 percent of gross domestic product by 2030.
Britain’s relations with its closest neighbors and biggest trading partners have been strained since it left the now 27-member European Union in 2020. Both Johnson and Truss seemed happy to rouse the bloc in appeasing the powerful Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party.
Sunak softened, making warm calls to European leaders in the days after taking office. Concrete change is harder to achieve given the power wielded by the Conservatives’ Brexiteers.
Britain’s departure from the EU in 2020 has brought customs checks and other barriers to businesses trading with the zone, sparked a political crisis in Northern Ireland and ended the free flow of EU citizens to Britain to fill vacancies.
Britain could ease trade frictions by agreeing to align with EU rules in some areas, such as animal health or food regulations. But after reports of government tightening angered Eurosceptics, Sunak said this week that he would not accept “alignment with EU laws”.
David Henig, a trade expert at the European Center for International Political Economy, said the backlash “revealed how deep the European problem is for Rishi Sun and the Conservative Party”.
He said Sunak was a long-time Brexit supporter but also a pragmatist who “just wants a relationship that works – and that’s clearly not the case at the moment”.
“I think the problem is that you don’t have new ideas on how to do it, and there’s a lot of internal resistance,” Henig said. ———
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