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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jessica Elgot Deputy political editor

Focus on NHS and inflation to keep poll hopes alive, Sunak tells ministers

Rishi Sunak gathered ministers at his country retreat Chequers on Thursday and took a fresh look at the party’s strategy for the next election. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

The Conservatives must “relentlessly focus” on inflation and the NHS if they are to have a chance at the next election, cabinet ministers have been told.

Rishi Sunak gathered ministers at his country retreat Chequers on Thursday for a midday political cabinet – where a number of ministers gave presentations on the government’s key priorities and took a fresh look at the strategy for the next election.

Sources said that ministers would be given a bleak picture about the party’s unpopularity, but that there was some reason for optimism as polling showed the party was regaining confidence on the economy.

Sunak said each minister would be focusing on ways they could deliver the five priorities he set out in January – halving inflation, boosting economic growth, cutting national debt, addressing the NHS backlog and stopping migrant boats crossing the Channel.

He said delivering them would provide “peace of mind for people, immediate relief for families, but also that they can look forward to a better future for their children and grandchildren, filled with hope, optimism and pride in our country”.

The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, Steve Barclay, the work and pensions secretary, Mel Stride and the home secretary, Suella Braverman, spoke at the summit on the delivery of the priorities.

Rishi Sunak
Sunak wants ministers to focus on delivering the five priorities he set out in January. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/AFP/Getty Images

Hunt told cabinet ministers that inflation was the key to everything, from strikes to infrastructure and voter misery on the cost of living.

At the awayday, Sunak and Hunt said that inflation is only predicted to fall “because of the tough decisions the government had taken at the autumn statement to stabilise the economy”.

But in a strong signal that the forthcoming budget will be restrained on both spending and tax cuts, Hunt said that it was necessary to maintain fiscal discipline.

Barclay said the government was on course to meet some of its early targets for the NHS, including eliminating two-year waits, and that the next phases would be new reforms to improve emergency and primary care.

Stride, who chaired the Treasury select committee, was expected to give a new update on ways to address economic inactivity, which Sunak sees as key to unlocking growth.

There have been various possibilities floated about ways to get people back into work, including changes to income tax for the over-50s and an advertising campaign aimed at getting women back to work after having children, though both have come in for public criticism.

Sources said Stride would speak on the work to identify the root causes particularly on hard-to-reach cohorts who are out of the workplace – over 50s, long-term sick and disabled people and carers.

Nadhim Zahawi
Nadhim Zahawi, the party chair, was said to have been sidelined during the awayday amid the ongoing scandal surrounding his tax affairs. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

Ministers were also given a presentation on priorities, polling and battleground seats from elections chief Isaac Levido, brought back to the party by Sunak having previously masterminded Boris Johnson’s 2019 victory.

Nadhim Zahawi, the party chair, has been sidelined during the awayday amid the ongoing scandal surrounding his tax affairs.

Party officials believe that although the polls showing a 20-point lead for Labour are a true reflection of the Conservatives’ unpopularity, there is some sign that the Labour support is mostly a representation of anger at the government rather than enthusiasm for Keir Starmer.

Ministers also said they expected to see what key dividing lines could be drawn with Labour, likely to include immigration and small boats crossing the Channel, as well as trans rights and gender issues.

But a key public blow was dealt to the party by Sir Rod Stewart, who called into a live Sky News phone-in to say he was no longer backing the Conservatives because of the state of the NHS.

“I personally have been a Tory for a long time but I think this government should stand down now and give the Labour party a go, this is heartbreaking,” he said. “In all my years in this country I’ve never seen it so bad … change the bloody government.”

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