Sunak strives to be reassuring but is five-point plan all sleight of hand?

In his first big speech since taking over at No 10, Rishi Sunak promised “no tricks, no ambiguity” as he announced his five promises to reset the government after a difficult year.

The prime minister said he would be focusing on halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing debt, cutting NHS waiting lists, and stopping small-boat crossings to the UK.

“Those are the people’s priorities,” he told his audience. “We will either have achieved them or not. No tricks, no ambiguity. We’re either delivering for you or we’re not.”

Sunak does not have time on his side, with the next general election expected in autumn 2024 and the public struggling with the cost of living, the state of the NHS and strikes.

So his speech was designed primarily to reassure people that, after a catastrophic year for the Tories, he would be a steady hand on the tiller navigating the country through perilous waters.

It was also intended to take on his internal party critics who believe he has ripped up the mandate Boris Johnson won in 2019, that he is a bit too technocratic to win over the “red wall”, and that he lacks a big vision for the country.

At first glance, staking his premiership on a five-point plan to fix Britain while the country is in the grip of a series of crises, which show little sign of abating, looks like a bold move.

But while Sunak promised to do away with tricks and ambiguity, his success, or failure, appears to depend on exactly that.

First, he refused to put firm end dates on his pledges, although without substantial progress on each of them by the next election he will have failed on his own terms.

Also, on closer inspection, with a bit of a sleight of hand, not all of the pledges should be too difficult to achieve. While the prime minister promised to halve inflation this year to ease the cost of living, it is due to come down anyway, rendering that pledge less ambitious than existing forecasts.

The latest forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility suggest that CPI inflation in the last quarter of this year is already set to fall to 3.8%, nearly two-thirds lower than in the last quarter of 2022, when it was 11.1%. The government was very keen to blame external factors for soaring inflation, so presumably it won’t now be taking credit for the fall?

Sunak vowed that his government would grow the economy to create better paid jobs and opportunities. But the OBR has forecast that the UK will come out of recession next summer, before the next election, while Labour has noted that OECD forecasts suggest that the UK is one of the only advanced economies not to grow this year.

His promise to get national debt falling to secure the future of public services is already one of the government’s fiscal targets the OBR has said it is expected to meet. But at the end of the forecast period (2027-28) the OBR still expects debt to be 30% higher as a percentage of GDP than when the Tories came to power.

The prime minister’s next promise – to pass new laws to stop small boats crossing the Channel – has fudge written all over it. Legislating to crack down on asylum seekers is the easy bit; actually making it happen when desperate people are seeking safe haven here is another.

Successive Tory leaders have repeatedly promised to stop the boats, most recently with the Nationality and Borders Act, yet crossings are now at a record high as they also shut off alternative safe legal routes into the country.

Sunak’s fifth and final pledge, to reduce NHS waiting lists, could be his undoing. But again it depends on how the government chooses to interpret it. Initially, the prime minister declined to put any timescale on the pledge, before admitting that waiting lists would not decline until “spring of next year” as set out in the existing NHS plan. Which means despite them soaring first, they will technically be on a downwards trajectory come the election.

Ultimately, for Sunak, the five-point plan is all about hanging on at the next election, even with a dramatically reduced majority. With that being the prize at stake, expect more tricks and ambiguity to come.