After the mayhem, after Liz Truss blew up the economy, the only way was up. Things could only get better – or so you would have thought. But Rishi Sunak’s 100 days to steady the ship have left him and his party clinging to a life raft.
Yesterday the half a million public servants out on strike were largely backed by voters unwilling to see the pay of nurses, teachers and the rest fall behind inflation and below the private sector.
Today the Bank of England foolishly raised interest rates to a shocking 4%, steering into the headwinds of recession while the IMF predicts only the UK will fall back while all others grow. With food prices up 17%, and mortgages and rents rising again, the Bank hopes unemployment will rise too: it may be independent, but a strong Keynesian steer from government would have deterred this austerian folly.
Fewer than 100 days remain before Sunak faces the electorate’s verdict in May’s local elections. No one has voted for him. His own party doesn’t like him: Sunak is near the bottom of ConservativeHome’s ranking of cabinet ministers and prominent Tory MPs by party members, at just 2.9% approval: about the same as Dominic Raab. Sunak falls behind Keir Starmer on every polling measure, from best to run the economy to best prime minister.
How bad is this? Only Truss ever fared worse. This will not lead to a repeat of John Major’s 1992 turnaround: politics professor Rob Ford points to Major’s 100th day neck-and-neck with Labour polling, while Sunak is 25% behind.
True, Sunak was dealt a bad hand, but look how badly he plays it. It’s no use proclaiming integrity, then appointing a seedy cabinet of shifty rogues, bullies, tax dodgers and retreads instead of fresh new faces. “Sir” Gavin Williamson? Nadhim Zahawi? Suella Braverman? Grant Shapps? Really? He is held captive by the caucuses and cabals he must balance, and backers he must reward, stymied by contradictory imperatives of his fissiparous backbenches while he dithers over sackings, blown by the winds for lack of direction.
He stands firm only on his greatest blunder, with no exit plan. Obstinately refusing to negotiate, he makes unions the reasonable ones, ready to talk turkey so long as some raise is on the table. This is not economics, not holding down inflation as he claims, but pure politics, which is not his forte. If he thinks he can drive strikers into submission through abject penury, it won’t happen – and if it did, the shame would be on him, and the sympathy with them. Mini-me Thatcher imitation is no route to success 40 years on.
That’s because economic truth is on the unions’ side: Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, says firmly to me that a public sector pay rise “is not in itself inflationary”: there are no prices to rise, unlike in the private sector. What’s more, he says, the sums involved to pay public workers are small from a total pay bill of £240bn. Each extra 1% costs £2.5bn.
He gives a good example of relative costs: if the “temporary” cut in fuel duty is restored, that raises £6bn, “enough to pay NHS staff and teachers a raise around the inflation rate”. If Sunak prefers a £6bn bribe for the fuel lobby, that’s his political choice. That will underline his image as an obtusely wrongheaded, anti-public sector austerian, while nurses and teachers flock away from their professions: where are his extra maths teaching coming from?
Most perplexing is Sunak’s inertia on the NHS perma-crisis. It was unthinkable for previous governments to expect to survive 1,000 people a week dying needlessly (not counting Covid deaths), with up to half of those attributed to A&E delays, according to analysis by LCP Actuaries. Just one case used to cause an uproar: Mavis Skeet’s needless cancer death in 2000 propelled Labour into supercharged NHS investment.
If Sunak relies on Stalin’s maxim that “one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”, Rob Ford tells me this will be radiation poisoning of the Tories’ reputation, “a sickness lasting years to come, a folk memory of the time the ambulance never came for Grandad.”
Sunak refuses to say the word “crisis”, when he should have called a national emergency long ago. This would mean organising Cobra meetings every day, giving staff immediate pay rises, getting funds poured into social care, summoning volunteers on deck. Never mind that by doing that he admits to 13 years of cuts – he could have seized the initiative. But that’s what he lacks, in a nothingness that goes far deeper than eager-to-please smiles.
The idea of a vital “first 100 days” came from 1933 and Franklin D Roosevelt’s first 77 laws and project investments to kickstart a dead economy. Sunak can boast only a malevolent anti-strike law, U-turns on windfarms (good) and housing targets (bad).
Looking ahead, he has no vista beyond five bog-standard governances - to calm inflation and attempt to patrol borders and cut NHS waiting times. This week’s Institute for Government report on the civil service is dire. Can he fix the Northern Ireland protocol without a DUP or backbench rebellion?
Only three seats in Britain now have a majority in favour of Brexit, according to a new poll. “Give us something to fight for,” the former Brexit minister David Frost demands, but they’ll be fighting one another as Boris Johnson and Truss gird their loins for God knows what. Sleaze, cronyism and corruption inquiries are in progress, but nothing else progresses, while the US and EU outdo each other in massive green investments, excluding us. Welcome to the dog days, and yet more lost growth to come.
Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist