Back to work for leaders in a desperate search for credibility
MPs today trudge back into Westminster in no doubt as to the challenges facing their respective parties over the coming months.
The Tories are starting on the bottom rung, knowing that after a miserable year their government needs to start delivering on manifesto pledges that appear to have got lost amid the numerous scandals of 2022.
For Labour, it is a case of taking advantage of the failings of the opposition and showing the public that they are, as Sir Keir Starmer claims, a government in waiting.
The messages delivered in the new year speeches the two party leaders gave within a day of each other last week were telling.
Rishi Sunak, viewed by many as the safe pair of hands needed after the chaotic premierships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, certainly played it safe with some of his five key pledges.
His promise to halve inflation this year, for example, seems highly likely to land bearing in mind it has been forecast to happen by the vast majority of economists. He was hardly sticking his neck out when he promised the economy would grow, as it is almost impossible for it not to after two years of stagnation.
The Prime Minister’s vow to stop the small boats may be of more interest, especially as one had dropped off 44 migrants in Dover just hours before he spoke.
Meanwhile Sir Keir’s message was all about offering fresh hope, with policies including a new ‘take back control’ bill that would see the devolution of more powers to the regions.
But while Mr Sunak’s problems are clearly far deeper than Sir Keir’s, the run-up to the next general election is not without its challenges for the Labour leader.
His strategy reeks of Tony Blair, and while this may appeal to the middle ground – and indeed to some in the Red Wall areas he is desperately trying to win back – it will also serve to alienate many of those who were drawn to Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.
This has already resulted in internal struggles, with a number of hard-left activists causing Sir Keir headaches by attempting to get on candidate lists for the next general election.
But while to some extent, Sir Keir can afford to look to the future, Mr Sunak has a number of major issues to deal with in the here and now.
The wave of industrial action shows no signs of abating, and in rail union boss Mick Lynch the PM has found an adversary who simply won’t go away.
Bringing and end to the strikes would not just be a major – and much needed – political victory for Mr Sunak, it would also boost the country’s economy.
Yet as things stand things are likely to get worse before they get better, with the Government’s planned anti-strike laws prompting threats from union leaders of coordinated strikes across the public sector.
The deepening NHS crisis is another issue that Mr Sunak appears to have struggled to get to grips with since he took over at Number 10. He has become the latest in a long line of premiers to pledge to cut waiting lists, but does not seem entirely sure how to do it.
Across England more than seven million people are currently waiting for some form of care – that’s one-eighth of the population.
It is fair to say that the PM’s confidence that things will improve is not shared by the general public, many of whom will have experienced first hand in recent months the desperate state of our health services.
Add the ongoing cost of living crisis into the melting pot, and it is little wonder that Tories are looking ahead to May’s local elections with a large degree of trepidation.
Those polls, which include ‘all out’ elections in parts of the West Midlands, will give the PM a good idea of the size of the mountain he faces head of the next general election. Our region is key, because come a general election it is one area Labour must win back.
The harsh reality is that the only way he can persuade people that his party is worthy of a fifth term of office is to make some headway on the NHS, the strikes and the cost of living. Failure to do so will mean even staunch Tory voters will start to question whether Sir Keir could really be any worse.