Little sign of relief in 2024 for Prime Minister Sunak

by Peter Cardwell, Senior Counsel

As Parliament rises for its Christmas recess and MPs leave behind Westminster until its return on 8th January, Rishi Sunak will head north to Richmond, his Yorkshire constituency, to spend four clear days off with his family. After quite a year politically, few could begrudge the Prime Minister a break. At a drinks reception on Monday evening at 10 Downing Street, he told mehe would have liked to have gone ice skating recently, but there were some protests near the rink he wanted to skate on, so his police protection officers said he couldn’t go. As I, perhaps somewhat uncharitably, told the Prime Minister of my plans to go to Somerset House to skate immediately after the reception, his eyes betrayed a small sense that perhaps he would have liked to have done the same thing, rather than spend further hours preparing for his grilling at Liaison Committee in the House of Commons the following afternoon.

As it happens, he survived his session with the Liaison Committee largely unscathed and had some good news to celebrate yesterday with the fall in inflation, which shows at least one of his five pledges is working. A significant drop to 3.9% means more money in people’s pockets and an inflation rate much closer to the Bank of England’s stated target of 2%. Critics will say Rishi Sunak has personally little to do with this, but it is an achievement of government and the financial system to drive this down, when in so many other countries the same has not happened.

As Sunak looks to 2024, the same success cannot be said of his other pledges, notably hospital waiting lists, which see one person in every five homes in our country waiting for treatment. The pledge to stop the boats, which the Prime Minister has said in recent days had no specific deadline (that was not quite what he said in his January 2023 speech) is also impossible. More progress has been made on this issue – the UK has reduced illegal cross-Channel crossings by around a third – than in many other countries across Europe, for which illegal migration has been a huge problem. The strong words in Italy last weekend from the Prime Minister emphasised this further. But there is so much more to do, and the legislative wrangles around this (more in a moment) are the biggest problem the PM faces as he goes into 2024.

A test of his progress will come early in the new year with the Wellingborough by-election. A date has not been set yet but when it does this will be Rishi Sunak’s 10th as Prime Minister, which demonstrates the extraordinary rapidity of political events during his 14 month premiership. Professor Sir John Curtice, the UK’s pre-eminent polling expert, suggests the seat could be Labour’s for the taking, which would reduce Sunak’s working majority into 2024 yet further to 54.

Numerically, that majority, particularly with a divided party, is one of Rishi Sunak’s biggest problems as he faces into what is probably his final year as Prime Minister. On Monday night at that reception, he joked that he would make clear the date of the election and it was going to be… 2024. Technically, he could have pushed an election into January 2025, but we now have confirmation it will be next year. To kick off that year of campaigning, internal divisions within the Conservative Party will reach fever pitch as the Safety of Rwanda Bill reaches its Third Reading. The Prime Minister is the chess king in stalemate – whichever way he moves it is impossible to win, and if this legislation actually becomes law it will be a legislative miracle, or a deeply diluted version of what was originally proposed. The odds are stacked against the PM because of the clear ideological dividing lines in his party over a policy he essentially inherited from his predecessor and may not have actually continued, had it not been for the clear political need to have Suella Braverman as his Home Secretary.

Rishi Sunak is a workaholic and a man who finds it hard to switch off. Even during the holiday season, the battles ahead will be on his mind. Christmas will be a brief respite from perhaps the most difficult year of his political career – which, he knows, is almost certainly his last in government.

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