What with the country feeling never more like it could collapse into anarchy at any second, there was a certain amount of disbelief when the pre-released bit of Rishi Sunak’s big new year speech arrived and it contained only one announcement, and that announcement was a vague commitment to there being more maths lessons in schools.
For the whole of the Christmas period, journalists have hung around in hospitals, listening to children screaming in pain, counting the hours in which elderly patients have languished either on trolleys in corridors or even on the floor. They have seen ambulances queued up outside, unable to unload their suffering cargoes. As far as I am aware, no one has documented a single agonised howl for more quadratic equations.
This is not to say that maths is a bad thing, it’s just not necessarily the main priority at the moment. And if you are the prime minister, and you’re going to make a big new year’s speech in which you’re going to try to reassure people that you understand not their concerns but their abject terrors, and that you really are going to do something about them, then it is arguable that it is unwise to make the focus of your speech the need for children to do more maths.
The specific plan is to make children learn maths, in some form or another, up to the age of 18. He has also acknowledged that it almost certainly won’t be possible to bring it in before the next election. Purely on an anecdotal level, my daughter is three years old and has never had a maths lesson in her life but I strongly suspect that, if shown a brightly enough coloured bar chart of the current opinion polls, she may very well be able to work out that after the next election, Rishi Sunak may not be doing very much at all.
There are other risks involved too. Like the clear majority of people in the country, I did not study maths beyond GCSE, which means that when a Tory government promises to build 40 new hospitals and then builds none, it is not possible for me to work out that something has gone wrong.
And when NHS waiting list targets are missed for 88 per cent of patients then, well, that’s all Dutch for most of us. And when a 92-year-old woman spends 30 hours on a trolley in a hospital corridor and has become so distressed by the experience that she is now asking her family to just let her die, as happened in a Liverpool hospital last night, then luckily for the government, almost none of us can add those numbers up.
It would transpire that Sunak had no choice but to brief this bit in advance because the rest was even worse. He strolled out on a stage in the old press centre at the Olympic Park to announce that he had five promises. Some of us have been around long enough to remember something like this happening before, involving Ed Miliband and a very large piece of masonry.
There was no stone this time but apart from that it was just the same. Most of his five pledges are already forecast to happen anyway – “to halve inflation”, to “grow the economy” and to “make sure national debt is falling”.
The other two – “NHS waiting lists will fall” and “pass new laws to stop small boats” – came with absolutely no time commitment whatsoever, in order to make them reliably meaningless.
In this regard, Sunak is pioneering. Most people start to feel guilty by around 15 January, when all their new year’s resolutions have come to nothing. Lose weight. Get fit. Read more books. These are all far too concrete; too easy to fail. A Sunak resolution is far more manageable. “Grow the economy.” When? Well, by some point in the future. This is a commitment, by the prime minister, not to be in recession forever. You can’t break your promises if you make entirely unbreakable ones.
There were extended attempts to pin the prime minister down on some of this stuff at the end but it came to nothing. Sunak went to ostentatious lengths to take as many questions as possible, all of which received lengthy non-answers followed by a polite request for no follow-up questions, given how pushed everyone is for time. (It hardly needs to be stated that the only person in the room that was in a hurry to leave was the prime minister himself, and the best way to save time would simply be to answer the questions involved.)
What did he mean, for example, when he said “no more small boats”? Were they going to stop altogether? And by when?
The answer to this question went on for more than 90 seconds. Sunak meandered around the associated verbiage on the subject in the style of a Just a Minute contestant. The French… Rwanda... Albania…lawyers… patrols… public will judge whether or not we’re doing all we can. What was needed was a yes or a no, and a date.
In one regard, no date is required. All Sunak’s promises, however vague, have a very clear deadline, and that is precisely six weeks after he calls an election. He might have been lucky enough to get all the maths lessons he could wish for. What he could do with now is a bit more RE. What he needs is a miracle.