Shropshire Star

What NHS ‘failure’ and uncertain growth figures mean for Sunak’s five pledges

Inflation halved over 2023, but the Prime Minister’s four other pledges for the year remain at risk.

SME panel event

Rishi Sunak has admitted missing one of his five key priorities for the past year, and said it is uncertain whether he will meet another.

In an interview with TalkTV, the Prime Minister conceded that he had failed to cut NHS waiting lists and acknowledged that the economy may not have grown last year.

The two issues formed part of his five priorities, which dominated the Prime Minister’s public appearances in 2023 after he promised in his new year’s speech to halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut NHS waiting times and stop small boat crossings.

In an interview with Piers Morgan Uncensored, he said: “I think we have made good progress on all of them and we should go through … I think we have made good progress on the economic ones, which are the first three – to halve inflation, grow the economy and reduce debt.

“We have not made progress on cutting waiting lists, which we will get into, and we have made progress on stopping the boats – but there is more to do – and we will get on to that as well.”

He added that he would not “obfuscate” on whether he had achieved his aims, saying he wanted to “be a different type of politician”.

Below, the PA news agency has looked at each of his five priorities and whether or not he has achieved them.

Rishi Sunak visits Lancashire and County Durham
Rishi Sunak’s priorities have consistently appeared behind him as he travels the country (PA)

– Halve inflation

The Prime Minister met his pledge to halve inflation in 2023.

Mr Sunak needed inflation to fall to below 5.4% in order to meet his target and the final figures for the year showed this has been achieved, with inflation falling to 4% by December.

ECONOMY Inflation
Inflation more than halved over the course of 2023, meeting the Prime Minister’s target. (PA Graphics)

Economists suggested the fall in inflation was largely due to lower energy costs and rising interest rates rather than Government action, but Mr Sunak hailed the figures, saying he has “delivered” on his “top priority” for the year.

Nevertheless, progress has not been linear, with inflation rising slightly between November and December 2023, and the inflation rate remains above the Bank of England’s 2% target.

– Grow the economy

Growth over 2023 was weak, and although the final GDP figures for the year are still to be published it looks unlikely that the economy will have grown by much more than 0.5%, and may even have shrunk.

ONS estimates suggest the economy did not grow at all between April and June, and actually shrank between July and September, posing the risk of a technical recession if figures show a further contraction between October and December.

(PA Graphics)

The vagueness of Mr Sunak’s pledge does give him a little bit of leeway. It is not clear whether he meant the economy would grow over the entire year, or simply from the third quarter to the fourth, and it is still conceivable that one of these measures could be met.

But claiming a technical victory will be of little political use if the overall economic picture is still one of stagnation.

The growth figures for December are set to be released on February 15, and will give a clearer picture of whether Mr Sunak has been able to grow the economy or not.

In an interview with TalkTV, the Prime Minister said it was “on the wire” whether the economy had grown or stagnated, but added that either outcome was better than the recession some had feared.

– Reduce debt

The national debt rose over the course of 2023, and remains at levels not seen since the early 1960s.

Figures for December 2023 suggest the total national debt stands at 97.7% – higher than it was a year earlier when it stood at 95.8%.

Revisions to previous figures mean national debt has now climbed fairly steadily over the course of 2023, and underlying debt (excluding the Bank of England) has also increased, although not quite as rapidly.

ECONOMY Borrowing
The national debt continued to rise over the course of 2023 (PA Graphics)

Despite this, Mr Sunak has claimed to be reducing debt, earning criticism from UK Statistics Authority chairman Sir Robert Chote for claiming that “debt is falling”.

The picture is slightly complicated by the OBR forecasts, which suggest debt is on track to start falling in five years’ time, meaning Mr Sunak may be able to claim success on this basis even if debt is not actually falling.

– Cut NHS waiting lists

Rishi Sunak has admitted that he has failed to cut NHS waiting lists, despite pledging to do this at the start of 2023.

The number of people waiting for NHS treatment reached an estimated 7.61 million in November, up from 7.21 million in January 2023.

In an interview with TalkTV, the Prime Minister said the Government had “not made enough progress” and, when asked if he had failed on his pledge, said: “Yes, we have.”

But the Prime Minister may still be able to claim some success as the overall waiting list fell in October for the first time this year after reaching a record high of 7.7 million in September.

NHS funding
Rishi Sunak pledged to cut waiting lists, but the number of people waiting for NHS treatment has reached record levels (PA)

There are some bright spots in the NHS waiting list data, with the total number of people waiting having fallen from its peak of 7.7 million in September and sharp reductions in the number of people waiting more than two years.

Waiting lists of more than 18 months, 15 months and 12 months have also fallen since the start of 2023, though the number of people waiting more than 18 months has begun to creep up again.

The final figures from the year are expected to be published on Thursday, but are very unlikely to show a fall in the overall waiting list for 2023.

– Stop the boats

The Prime Minister was forced to admit in December that there is no “firm date” for “stopping the boats”, despite making it one of his priorities for 2023.

Small boat crossings declined in 2023, but are still a long way from stopping (PA Graphics)

A total of 29,437 people crossed the Channel in small boats in 2023, and while this represents a reduction from 45,755 in 2022, the crossings are still a long way from ending.

Crossings have continued into 2024, with 1,335 people making the journey in January, slightly more than the number seen in the first month of 2023.

Challenged by select committee chairs at the House of Commons Liaison Committee in December, Mr Sunak said there is now no “precise” date for achieving this aim.

Meanwhile, the Rwanda policy, which Mr Sunak believes will be a strong deterrent to further crossings, remains in doubt as legislation to overcome the Supreme Court’s objections faces a difficult passage through Parliament.

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