UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak marks 100 days in office this week, proving more durable than his predecessor Liz Truss but treading a field of political landmines at home and abroad.
He made history by becoming the first Hindu and person of Asian descent to lead the UK.
After Ms Truss’s chaotic 49 days, Mr Sunak can argue he has restored some calm: the markets are steady, an immediate financial crisis has been averted, and something approaching normal day-to-day politics has returned to Westminster.
But his promises to restore trust have been derailed by scandals, such as Mr Sunak’s police fine last week, and the Conservative Party remains stuck in dismal polling numbers with a 2024 election coming into view.
And the jury remains out on whether Mr Sunak will achieve his priorities of improving the economy, cutting illegal migration and easing the pressure on the health service to win back public support.
The National looks at Mr Sunak’s progress so far in main policy areas.
Pledge: Stabilise the economy by cutting debt and reducing inflation.
Progress: “Stability” and “confidence” are the two words Mr Sunak most used when talking about the economy. He said the government would “restore economic stability and will do so in a fair and compassionate way.”
So, has he? Well, a bit, the commentators say.
When Mr Sunak took office, interest rates were 2.25 per cent. They leapt by 0.75 per cent to 3 per cent in early November and are expected to jump another 0.5 per cent to 4 per cent this week.
Inflation was at a 41-year high of 11.1 per cent when Mr Sunak moved into 10 Downing Street. It dropped slightly in November and again in December to 10.5 per cent.
The FTSE 100 index of blue chip shares and the broader market FTSE 250 are both around 10 per cent higher, while the British pound has risen some seven per cent against the US dollar. During the same time, the yield on the 10-year gilt (government bond) has fallen slightly.
Most of which means that Mr Sunak has achieved a degree of stability. How much the market recovery from the disruption it suffered under the short-lived Truss government is directly attributable to anything that Mr Sunak actually did is debatable. Perhaps just not being Ms Truss was enough.
“Credit where it is due. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have done a really good job of stabilising our economy after the fallout of the autumn,” said Tony Danker, director general of the Confederation of British Industry.
In early January, Mr Sunak narrowed his commitments down to three on the economy: halve inflation, grow the economy and reduce the national debt.
The Bank of England expects a fall in inflation from the middle of the year. But growing is not something most economists expect the UK economy to do this year — most feel it will shrink in a range from 0.4 per cent to 1.3 per cent, with the possibility of weak growth in 2024. It was revealed last week that December borrowing was at its highest on record.
“Rishi Sunak has pledged to grow the UK economy this year, which is increasingly looking like a tall order,” said Sophie Lund-Yates, Lead Equity Analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.
“The impossible dilemma between taking the economy off the boil to bring inflation down, and championing economic growth, is still very much priority one on the Prime Minister’s desk,” she added.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) slashed its economic growth forecasts for the UK.
The IMF now predicts the UK economy will shrink by 0.6 per cent in 2023. In October, the IMF had expected growth of 0.3 per cent. It means the UK is the only economy in the G7 group of industrialised countries that is forecast by the IMF to shrink this year.
Pledge: Cut illegal migration across the English Channel by putting pressure on France and tightening asylum laws.
Progress: Mr Sunak came to office during a record-breaking year for illegal immigration.
Small boats brought 45,728 people to British shores in 2022, up 60 per cent. In his first major speech of 2023, Mr Sunak made tackling the migrant crisis one of the five main pledges on which he asked the public to judge his leadership.
“We will pass new laws to stop small boats, making sure that if you come to this country illegally, you are detained and swiftly removed,” he said.
An agreement was signed with France allowing for joint police operations and an increase in French patrols, funded by £62 million ($76.8 million) of British money. There have also been efforts to deter asylum claims from Albania, one of the main sources of Channel migrants.
But Conservative MP Tim Loughton told The National it will be impossible for Mr Sunak to make good on his promise unless co-operation with France goes further.
“The trouble is the power is not in the UK’s hands, so the issue is that as soon as a boat hits British territorial waters it becomes our problem and becomes our responsibility,” Mr Loughton said.
“The minute a boat gets into British waters the occupants have made it to the UK, effectively. We have no direct control over that while the French refuse to do two things: intercept the boats when they’re in French territorial waters and take the occupants back to France … and intercept them on the beaches.”
While he stressed that French authorities stop about 40 per cent of people trying to cross the Channel illegally, they typically do not arrest migrants when caught. This policy leaves them free to launch consecutive bids to cross the Channel until they are successful, he said.
Integrity and sleaze
Pledge: Restore trust and integrity after the web of scandals that brought down Boris Johnson.
Progress: Shortly after being sworn in by King Charles III, the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street and made a bold commitment to govern with “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”.
His words were seen as a dig at his former boss Boris Johnson who was forced out of No 10 weeks earlier by a series of scandals.
It didn’t take long for Mr Sunak’s position to be hit by incidents, which came in the form of a triple whammy.
The Prime Minister was given a police fine after Downing Street released a video of him sitting in a moving car while not wearing a seat belt.
A row centred on a loan secured by Mr Johnson while he was in No 10 is also proving to be a distraction from Mr Sunak’s agenda. Richard Sharp is accused of helping to facilitate a loan to the then prime minister before he was appointed BBC chairman. The matter is under review by the Commissioner of Public Appointments.
But the biggest thorn in Mr Sunak's side so far centred on a member of his top team — Nadhim Zahawi. The first Iraqi-born MP to be given a position in a British government spent a brief stint as chancellor of the exchequer last summer while Mr Johnson was in office.
After it emerged Mr Zahawi had paid a penalty — an estimated £4.8 million — while he was head of the Treasury, Mr Sunak ordered an investigation. After a scathing verdict by Sir Laurie Magnus, his independent adviser on ministers’ interests, Mr Zahawi was fired on Sunday. The Prime Minister has been accused of acting too swiftly and too slowly by opposing camps. Either way, he has a long way to go to prove he has put an end to sleaze in his government.
Ukraine and defence policy
Pledge: Be Ukraine's “strongest ally” and offer “unwavering support” to its struggle against Russia.
Progress: Mr Sunak may not have Mr Johnson's personal rapport with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but Ukrainian lobbyists visiting London last week said they were grateful for the UK's support and sought more.
Britain broke ground this month by offering 14 of its Challenger 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine — a move followed by the US, Germany and others. Mr Zelenskyy praised Mr Sunak personally for his “powerful decisions, for his policies that make the free world stronger”.
As far as Britain's own forces are concerned, Mr Sunak has evaded demands from some MPs to commit to spending 2.5 or 3 per cent of UK GDP on defence. Ms Truss had promised 3 per cent.
He announced last month that the UK would team up with Italy and Japan to build a new generation of fighter jets, which could take to the skies by 2035.
Pledge: Pursue “respectful, mature relationships” with Europe after years of tensions.
Having never been a statesman, Mr Sunak’s foreign policy credentials were always going come under scrutiny. As well as navigating the war with Ukraine, he has had to rectify relationships with foreign powers damaged by his predecessors.
It was not until late November that he made his first foreign policy speech in which he vowed to stand up to the UK’s competitors with “robust pragmatism” and promised to strengthen ties in the Indo-Pacific and repair relations with Europe.
“His key task was to stabilise Britain’s international standing and to begin the hard slog of restoring a sense of reliability and trustworthiness in Britain’s dealings around the world which had taken a hammering under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss,” John Kampfner, the executive director of the UK in the World Project at Chatham House, told The National.
“He has made slow incremental progress. The key task was to repair the fractured relationship with the European Union and key European players — something Johnson and Truss seemed to enjoy destroying.
“Sunak knows that this matters, not just for the UK economy is terms of trade, both of which have suffered as a result of Brexit, but it matters in terms of Britain’s wider reputation in other continents. The Americans have been behind the scenes frustrated with the Brits over the continued status of the Northern Ireland protocol.
“After Truss’s silly remarks about Macron, Sunak has gone out of his way to try to show that Britain is returning to normal, sensible, respectable diplomacy and not shrill headline grabbing.”
Pledge: Cut waiting times in the National Health Service, with a “backlogs task force” to emulate the coronavirus vaccination effort.
Progress: Mr Sunak did form his task force last month, although not “on day one” as he promised, and a Downing Street health summit was criticised for not including NHS workers given the strikes by nurses and ambulance workers.
Mr Sunak — who emphasises that he is “from an NHS family” because his father was a doctor and his mother a pharmacist — has made waiting times one of the five key tests he is asking the British public to judge him by.
A specific pledge from the summer leadership campaign, that anyone on an NHS waiting list for more than 18 weeks would be contacted in Mr Sunak’s first 100 days in power, has not been seen or heard again.
But progress was declared last week when Mr Sunak’s cabinet was told by Health Secretary Steve Barclay that two-year waits in the NHS had been “virtually eliminated”.
Mr Sunak on Monday set out plans for the "largest and fastest-ever improvement in emergency waiting times", which include more patients being supported at home.
The NHS Confederation said staff were “making inroads” into waiting lists but that the system “is under more pressure than it was last year”, when the Covid-19 Omicron variant was spreading rapidly.
Rishi Sunak through the years — in pictures
Pledge: Make UK energy independent by 2045 and carbon neutral by 2050.
Progress: When Mr Sunak took over, many environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief, not so much because he had shown any great affiliation to green causes, but because it seemed he would reverse many of the distinctly environmentally unfriendly policies of Ms Truss.
He re-prohibited fracking, relaxed rules on onshore wind, promised to increase energy efficiency, and at the Cop27 summit in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, insisted the UK would deliver on its commitment of £11.6 billion ($14.35bn) in climate finance by 2026.
However, he had to be persuaded to go to Cop27 after a Downing Street representative initially said he had “other pressing domestic commitments”.
“Sunak promised to take more action on energy efficiency. There has been a significant move since then,” said Ed Matthew, campaigns director at the think tank E3G.
Nonetheless, Mr Matthew believes that Mr Sunak has “not done enough” on the environment, regardless of the pledges he has made.
“Climate change is an emergency and it requires a war effort approach to decarbonisation in order for us to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5ºC,” he said. “It is not good enough to continue to make progress. We must accelerate progress rapidly.”
Pledge: Seek a negotiated solution to the impasse over Northern Ireland
Progress: Mr Sunak, who voted to leave the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum, came into office at a time when voters in Northern Ireland had been without a functioning government for five months.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is refusing to restore the power-sharing agreement with Irish nationalists in protest against the sea border created by the Northern Ireland Protocol. Unionists argue the policy which requires checks on goods brought into Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain undermines the region’s position within the UK.
There are fears the deadlock could risk rekindling sectarian violence that largely ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Co-signatory of the historic deal and former taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Bertie Ahern called for compromise in talks aimed at finding a solution to the Protocol row. Asked by The National if he was worried about a potential return to the darker days of history in Northern Ireland, Mr Ahern said he was not. “I don’t think that’s on the agenda,” he said. “I am hopeful we can find a compromise.”
Mr Sunak told US President Joe Biden in November a settlement that protects the Good Friday Agreement would be reached in time for the April anniversary.
Under Mr Sunak’s watch, if the parties involved fail to reach an agreement it would reflect badly on the Prime Minister’s legacy.
“He's made clear he wants to resolve the impasse over the Northern Ireland protocol, although this is likely to come at the cost of a number of other foreign policy concessions to the Brexiteer conservative European Research Group,” the British Foreign Policy think tank said.
Pledge: Make Britain a “science and technology superpower” and improve technical education and numeracy standards.
Progress: Mr Sunak’s emphasis on maths in his first big speech of 2023 divided opinion.
Experts cautiously welcomed the aim of having all children study maths in some form until they turn 18, which Mr Sunak said would increase financial awareness and job skills.
But the focus on maths amid all Britain’s issues attracted a certain amount of ridicule, and critics said the plan was unworkable unless Mr Sunak was willing to pay for training more maths teachers.
The funding concerns came despite Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announcing an extra £4.3 billion ($2.85bn) for the state school budget until 2024.
University policy has, meanwhile, been caught in a party struggle over immigration, with some Tories concerned by leaked proposals to reduce the number of foreign students.
The verdict: With the public showing signs of weariness after almost 13 years of Conservative government, Mr Sunak was never going to solve all these problems in 100 days.
If the policies he has introduced on the economy, health and immigration bear fruit, he can tell voters next year that he is a man who meets his promises. But whether those policies succeed remains to be seen, and the scandal around Mr Zahawi is a reminder that even prime ministers cannot always set the political weather.