By Andrew Allison, Chief Executive
In this article, Andrew Allison looks at the political challenges facing Rishi Sunak this year.
I was listening to an interview recently on TalkTV between Mike Graham and Mark LIttlewood, the DIrector General of the Institute of Economic Affairs. During the interview, he quoted the great economist Milton Friedman: "It's just obvious you can't have free immigration and a welfare state.”
This has got me thinking once again about the illegal migrants crossing the English Channel in rubber dinghies. Some of them will have relatives in the UK whom they wish to join. Others, such as many of those coming to our shores from Albania, have more nefarious motives. Others will just want a better life which they believe the UK will give them. But all of them know that when they arrive in the UK they will be looked after. They will be given food, shelter and money. And if they are allowed to stay, they can always fall back on our generous welfare system.
We can blame the French all we like, and the French Government most certainly does not have clean hands, but His Majesty’s Government is responsible for defence, security and border control in the UK. Rishi Sunak has pledged to “pass new laws to stop small boats, making sure that if you come to this country illegally, you are detained and swiftly removed.” It’s progress, I suppose, but surely the Government ought to do everything in its power to prevent migrants from crossing in the first place? Removing incentives would be a good place to start.
I heard an interview with the French journalist, Anne-Elizabeth Moutet, a few weeks ago. She said that the French were puzzled as to why the UK offers migrants such generous benefits when they arrive here.
Although 2022 was an annus horribilis for the Conservative Party, 2023 is likely to be worse. The strikes that ended 2022 have continued in 2023. During the first week of January we were told not to travel by train unless it was absolutely necessary. Nurses, ambulance drivers and paramedics plan further strikes, and at the time of writing, junior doctors are being balloted on industrial action. Learner drivers are finding it difficult to get driving tests. Teachers are striking in Scotland and teachers' strikes are scheduled in England.
Inflation is set to fall (Sunak has pledged that it will halve); however, as Sunak and Hunt have delivered the highest tax burden since the Second World War, economic growth is going to be sluggish at best. Because the NHS became the National Covid Service, the waiting list for procedures and operations stands at over seven million. Sunak had pledged to reduce it, but he hasn’t put a figure on it. Would he regard a waiting list at the end of the year of 6.9 million as a success? I am sure that the British public would disagree.
Meanwhile, Sir Keir Starmer is preparing for the next general election, and all he and his party have to do is not make any major gaffes. Both Sunak’s and Starmer’s speeches earlier this month were snooze-a-thons, but Starmer can afford to be boring - which is just as well as that appears to sum him up. It is Sunak who has to be proactive. He is going to require a huge slice of luck to prevent Starmer from entering Number 10, but there is, it has to be said, a long way to go. Labour could produce a disastrous manifesto, for example. But this highlights that voters do not have an enviable choice on polling day, whenever that will be.
I am sure that I am not the only person who has difficulty in working out the differences between Labour and the Conservatives. Wes Streeting, the Shadow Health Secretary, has admitted that the problems with the NHS are not just about cash, but its structure. Streeting had a brush with cancer a couple of years ago, and in an interview with The Times, he revealed that it took him three appointments to get a simple test. He has said that he doesn’t want to see working class people in pain, and that if he were Health Secretary he would use private hospitals to bolster the NHS.
Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak can’t even answer a simple question as to whether or not he and his family have access to private healthcare. Or course they do, and he should have admitted it, adding that they can easily afford it and as result they help reduce the strain on the NHS.
We live in a topsy-turvy political world. What we really need is an adult national conversation about how to provide world-class healthcare in this country over the next 20 to 30 years. A long-term vision. We should be looking at the French and German systems which have far better patient outcomes. We should not be treating the NHS as a sacred cow. But this is not going to happen. Too many of our fellow countrymen and women worship at the altar of a healthcare system which is falling apart at the seams. It is grossly mismanaged.
With everything going on, free speech issues are often forgotten about, but not by us. Although ‘legal but harmful’ has been removed from the Online Safety Bill, it is still a major threat to free speech.
The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill should have been a major step forward into legally protecting student and academic freedom. The Bill would have enabled students and academics to sue their universities if they had failed to protect free speech on campuses. After a defeat in the House of Lords, the Government has instead watered down the Bill and has tabled an amendment in the Lords that will only allow students and academics to sue their universities in the last resort. They will instead have to go through the complaints procedures at their university and then appeal (if necessary) to the Higher Education regulator. Only then will they be allowed to take their case to the courts. The amount of time this will take will dissuade many from complaining. This is the last thing we needed and is another blow to free speech.
The Bill of Rights Bill hangs in the balance. When Boris Johnson was Prime Minister, the Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, was starting to steer this through Parliament. Liz Truss scrapped it. Rishi Sunak said he was in favour of it, and reappointed Raab as Justice Secretary. Now it appears that Sunak may be changing his mind. The Guardian reported last month that more than 150 civil society groups have written to Sunak urging him to keep Blair's Human Rights Act and commit to scrapping Raab's Bill of Rights.
And I haven’t even touched on Brexit. The Northern Ireland Protocol still hasn’t been resolved. We are not reaping the benefits of Brexit, and that is not likely to happen with Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor of the Exchequer. And like many TFA members, I have my doubts about Sunak’s commitment to Brexit, too.
There are going to be many battles this year on many different fronts. It is going to be a bumpy year politically and economically. The war in Ukraine is not looking like it is going to end anytime soon, and with more Covid hysteria starting to filter through, I am prepared for the Government trying to restrict our freedoms once again. Happy New Year!