Two weeks ago, in his first address to the nation as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak was keen to emphasise the legitimacy that he draws from the Conservative Party’s 2019 election victory, and his commitment to fulfilling the pledges of the 2019 manifesto.
In a parliamentary democracy like the UK, there is a case for the legitimacy Sunak claims – voters elect MPs, not a Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is the person who can command the confidence of the House of Commons – usually the leader of the largest party.
But, if Sunak is to plausibly claim that legitimacy, he and his party must be seen to be implementing the policies of the 2019 manifesto. So, how have the Conservatives done on that front so far?
The 2019 manifesto contained seven major pledges: Get Brexit Done; extra funding for the NHS, with 50,000 more nurse and 50 million more GP surgery appointments a year; 20,000 more police and tougher sentencing for criminals; an Australian-style points-based system to control immigration; millions more invested every week in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure while controlling debt, reaching Net Zero by 2050; and that they would not raise the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance.
Let’s examine each in turn.
‘Get Brexit Done’
In the sense of leaving the EU, this has been achieved. However, checks on goods entering Great Britain from the EU or Northern Ireland are yet to be implemented, having been delayed and delayed. The benefits of ‘getting Brexit are done’ are also questionable: UK exports to the EU fell by 14% in 2021 compared to 2020, with many UK businesses decreasing or stopping altogether trade with the EU; the country is desperately short of workers; we’re struggling to import food; higher education institutions can no longer participate in the Erasmus+ programme, and may lose access to Horizon funding; while lorry drivers and holidaymakers at the border queue for hours, if not days.
Extra funding for the NHS, with 50,000 more nurses and 50 million more GP surgery appointments a year
On the NHS, the Tories made the now-infamous pledges of 50,000 more nurses and 40 new hospitals.
The costings document that accompanied the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto revealed that ‘more nurses’ included those who had been retained who would otherwise have left the profession. The aim is for 31,500 of the 50,000 to be met through recruitment, and the other 18,500 to be gained through retention. The Government is currently on track to meet its target, with 26,000 additional nurses in the profession since September 2019.
The new hospitals programme, however, has been less impressive. The National Audit Office is undertaking a ‘Value for Money Review’ of the New Hospitals Programme. In July, the BBC reported that, of the proposed 40 new hospitals, ‘22 are rebuilding projects, 12 are new wings within existing hospitals, three involve rebuilding non-urgent care hospitals, and just three could realistically be classed as new hospitals’.
As for GPs – 2021 saw a record 366.7m appointments, exceeding the manifesto target. However, 55.3m of these appointments were for Covid-19 vaccinations. With the Covid-19 vaccination appointments removed, the figure for 2021 is within 0.2% of the figure for 2019.
20,000 more police and tougher sentencing for criminals
The latest government data on the ‘police officer uplift’ in England and Wales shows a total of 144,356 officers – an increase of 15,343 on the baseline figure, and on track for an increase of 20,000 officers by March 2023.
Conservative governments between 2010 and 2016 had cut nearly 20,000 police officers in England and Wales.
‘Tougher’ sentencing for criminals has also arguably been achieved, through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which saw longer sentences imposed for crimes such as battery or manslaughter of an emergency worker, child cruelty offences, and the premeditated murder of a child, as well as the removal of automatic release from prison at the halfway point of a sentence for violent and sexual offences. However, there is no evidence to suggest that longer prison sentences do anything to reduce crime.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives have brought the criminal justice system to its knees: average court wait times in England and Wales at almost 700 days by the end of 2021, and serious crimes go unpunished: in the year to September 2021, only 1.3% of recorded rape cases resulted in a charge, and there were just 1557 prosecutions – a fall of 70% in four years.
An Australian-style points-based system to control immigration
The Government did introduce a new ‘Points-Based Immigration System’ on 1 January 2021, to coincide with the end of the UK’s transition period as it left the EU. The new system aims to encourage the immigration of ‘skilled workers’.
Unlike Australia’s system, the UK’s immigration system is largely employer-driven, rather than points-based – immigrants must find an employer who is willing to sponsor them to come to the UK for a specific job opening. Points are awarded for the Skilled Worker visa, but most of the methods of gaining points are mandatory, meaning the system is more based on a list of criteria.
2021 saw a substantial drop in total immigration to the UK – from 741,000 the previous year to 573,000.
Millions more invested every week in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure while controlling debt
In March 2022, the Government announced a ‘largest ever’ R&D budget of £39.8bn for 2022-25. However, the ongoing standoff with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol has put access to the £95.5bn Horizon Europe funding pot at severe risk, threatening huge losses to UK R&D – including £250m already allocated to Uk researchers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly with the shock of a global pandemic and an energy crisis, UK Government debt has risen significantly as a proportion of GDP in recent years – from 82.8 percent in the first quarter of 2019, to 99.6% in the first quarter of this year. UK debt is above the EU average, but well below the average for G7 countries, with only Germany coming in lower.
Reaching Net Zero by 2050
This is an area where Rishi Sunak has sent out all the wrong signals. He has downgraded the Minister for Climate and the COP26 president from cabinet positions, and had to be dragged to join other world leaders at COP27. While he’s promised to continue the moratorium on fracking, he’s also continuing the ban on onshore wind, due to push-back from Tory voters.
The Climate Change Committee’s latest progress report found that the Government’s current plans are ‘unlikely’ to take the UK to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, with only 39% of the required emissions reductions covered by ‘credible plans or policies’.
Although good progress has been made in areas such as electricity supply and transport, plans for agriculture and land use are ‘insufficient’, while the report finds that most sectors have ‘significant risks’, citing ‘buildings, industry, aviation and shipping’ as particularly problematic. Commenting specifically on the Government’s net zero target, the CCC says ‘we are yet to see tangible progress in many key areas.’
We will not raise the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance
In the 2021 spring Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a four year freeze on income tax thresholds, essentially amounting to a tax rise for anyone whose wages rise in that time. Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini budget included a cut to the basic rate of income tax from 20% to 19%, which has so far been retained by the latest Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt. Kwarteng also announced plans to scrap the top rate of income tax, but this move was hastily reversed following a catastrophic market response.
The Government reduced VAT for the hospitality sector from 20% to 5% between 15 July 2020 and 30 September 2021, before raising it to 12.5%, and then returning the rate to 20% in April this year. Labour has repeatedly called on the Government to cut VAT on household energy bills, to help people cope with rising costs.
In April 2022, Boris Johnson’s government raised the level of National Insurance contributions by 1.25 percentage points, clearly breaking the 2019 manifesto pledge. However, this move was reversed as part of the ‘mini budget’.
For all the sound and fury of the last three years, someone somewhere in government has managed to make progress against a number of these pledges: notably the recruitment and retention programmes for police officers and nurses.
Many of the pledges, including ‘new’ hospitals, a points-based immigration system, tougher sentencing, and, most blatantly ‘getting Brexit done’, were misleading to start with, and even if they have been delivered, have brought little to no tangible gain to the country.
On other issues, including the vital race to net zero, the government is well behind where it wants and needs to be. They may legitimately point to Covid and to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as mitigating circumstances, but the fact remains that, even against the unambitious 2019 manifesto, the Conservatives are failing to deliver. If Rishi Sunak truly wants to base his authority on that platform, he’d better start making good on its pledges, and fast.