Rishi Sunak Asks Voters To Judge Him On "Results" In First Major Speech Of 2023
Rishi Sunak has set out five promises to the public in his first major speech of 2023, with the Prime Minister telling voters "we’re either delivering for you or we’re not".
Speaking at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, east London on Wednesday afternoon, Sunak said his government would prioritise repairing the economy, reducing NHS waiting times, and stopping small boat crossings between now and the next general election.
With the Conservatives far behind Keir Starmer's Labour in the opinion polls ahead of that election, which must be called by the end of 2024, the Prime Minister asked people to "judge us on the effort we put in and the results we achieve".
Sunak, who became Prime Minister in October, put "change" at the heart of his address, despite his party having been in power for more than 12 years. Sunak himself has been at the top of government since March 2020, spending just a few weeks on the backbenches while Liz Truss was briefly prime minister last autumn.
"If we're honest, change requires sacrifice and hard work," he said. "It's a big risk for a politician to say that, but the stakes are too high and the rewards too great.
"So change is hard. It takes time. But it is possible."
He confirmed that government will announce details of plans for new laws to limit further strike action in the "coming days", against a backdrop of strikes by nurses, ambulance workers and rail staff, among other sectors.
Sunak has faced growing calls to set out his vision for the country after succeeding Truss in 10 Downing Street in September. He said his five pledges were foundations "on which to build a better future for our children and grandchildren".
On the economy, the Prime Minister said he would halve inflation "to ease the cost of living and give people financial security" and make sure national debt is falling by the end of 2023.
Labour accused Sunak of setting unambitious targets, pointing to the pre-existing Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that inflation fall by nearly two thirds to 3.8% by the last quarter of the year.
Sunak said NHS waiting lists would fall on his watch and promised that people "will get the care they need more quickly" before the country next goes to the polls.
The Prime Minister took to the stage under growing pressure to get a grip of the chaos engulfing the health service this winter, amid scenes across the country of overcrowded A&E departments, patients waiting hours and even days for treatment, and reports of oxygen running out.
Yesterday, his spokesperson told reporters the NHS was currently facing an "unprecedented" challenge, but insisted that the government was giving it sufficient funding.
Sunak is also under pressure to reach a pay settlement with NHS staff as nurses and ambulance drivers prepare to go on strike this month having taken the historic decision to do so late last year. Junior doctors may also join the picket line, potentially giving ministers another major headache.
In his speech on Wednesday he said the government are putting "record sums into the NHS" and recruiting "record numbers of doctors and nurses", but admitted that patients "aren't receiving the care they deserve".
"So we need to recognise that something has to change," he said, but added that he will protect the founding principles of an NHS free at the point of use.
Sunak reaffirmed his plan to tackle small boat crossings through new laws, "making sure that if you come to this country illegally, you are detained and swiftly removed".
“So, five promises – we will: Halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut waiting lists, and stop the boats," the Prime Minister said.
“Those are the people’s priorities. They are your government’s priorities. And we will either have achieved them or not.
“No tricks, no ambiguity. We’re either delivering for you or we’re not. We will rebuild trust in politics through action, or not at all. So, I ask you to judge us on the effort we put in and the results we achieve.”
The leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey accused Sunak of being "asleep at the wheel" and failing to outline a detailed plan to deal with the pressure the healthcare system is under.
“He is asleep at the wheel while patients are treated in hospital corridors and the health service is stretched to breaking point," Davey said.
"Ministers should have been working to tackle this crisis for months, instead they spent most of 2022 indulging in a Conservative Party psychodrama. Now the whole country is paying the price.”
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas responded to the speech by tweeting a demand for a general election: "You talk about the urgent need for change, but your party has been in government for over 12 years."
"The real change we need is a #GeneralElectionNow."
After the speech, the Prime Minister was repeatedly questioned by reporters on the government's response to the pressure on the NHS, but was unable to offer specific detail on how he intended to address the crisis. Instead he referred multiple times to his five promises, which include a pledge on the NHS, and said he wants the country to "hold him to account" on delivering them.
Sunak also said he wants to crack down on anti-social behaviour and crime, saying the government will put an extra 20,000 police officers on the streets, a pledge originally made by Boris Johnson in 2019.
"We've got to reduce reoffending because a small number of career criminals account for disproportionate amounts of crime," he said, describing anti-social behaviour such as graffiti as a "gateway" for more serious crime.
"And we've got to beat addiction because heroin and crack addicts account for almost half of all robberies."
He highlighted the need to end violence against women, adding: "That means men taking responsibility for creating a culture and society where women are safe in their communities and at home."
Sunak argued that education policy is central to economic policy, and that numeracy skills are important to equip young people for the workplace.
He said the government will set out to have all children studying some form of maths up to the age of 18.
"I am now making numeracy a central objective of our education system," he said, adding that the policy would not necessarily mean making maths A-level compulsory.
In response to the speech, Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy accused the government of missing its target for new maths teachers for the last 10 years, making any push towards numeracy education difficult to achieve.
"Rishi Sunak's lecture on the importance of maths rings hollow," he tweeted. "Our children need more teachers, not just words."
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