Analysis

Fact check: Rishi Sunak made 5 key promises in his first speech as Prime Minister - he’s only delivered on one

One year on from Rishi Sunak entering Number 10, politics editor Ralph Blackburn looks back at his first speech and how many promises he's delivered on.
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In that time, he has promised to “stop the boats”, cancelled the HS2 leg to Manchester … in Manchester and announced some “long-term decisions for a brighter future”, such as an incremental ban on smoking. The polls however have largely remained unchanged. In November 2022, Labour were on 47% and the Conservatives on 26% - and according to the latest YouGov poll on the 17-18 October this year, Labour are still on 47% and the Tories are stuck on 25%. 

In his opening speech as Prime Minister, Sunak said that he was “not daunted” by the job at hand. He explained: “I know the high office I have accepted and I hope to live up to its demands.” In this short speech on the steps of Number 10, Sunak made five key promises to the British public. One year on, we look at how many of those, if any, he’s delivered on.

I will place economic stability and confidence at the heart of this government’s agenda

It’s fair to say that the reason Sunak became Prime Minister was because of the economic chaos left by his predecessor Liz Truss. At the end of September 2023, her first Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng unveiled a “mini-budget” which had multiple unfunded tax cuts, including abolishing the top rate of income tax, cancelling increases in corporation tax and national insurance, and axing the cap on bankers’ bonuses.

This spooked the markets, caused the pound to crash compared with the dollar, almost led to the collapse of several pension funds and hundreds of mortgage deals were pulled from the market. This was the context of Sunak’s premiership, so it was no surprise that he made economic stability a key part of his speech.

He kept Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor, who was brought in after Kwarteng was sacked, and since then the pair have not made any major tax cuts, despite pressure from Tory backbenchers. Sunak made halving inflation as one of his five pledges at the start of the year, even though that was largely the Bank of England’s responsibility and out of his control.

In his conference speech, he even said: “The best tax cut we can give is to cut inflation.” Will there still may be questions about Sunak’s results, he has certainly been committed to economic stability and confidence.

Verdict: No

Rishi Sunak has only delivered on one of the five promises he made in his first speech. Credit: Mark Hall/GettyRishi Sunak has only delivered on one of the five promises he made in his first speech. Credit: Mark Hall/Getty
Rishi Sunak has only delivered on one of the five promises he made in his first speech. Credit: Mark Hall/Getty

The government I lead will not leave the next generation, your children and grandchildren, with a debt to settle that we were too weak to pay ourselves

Reducing government debt was one of Sunak’s five pledges at the start of the year, and he’d trailed it in his first speech as PM. However it remains uncertain whether the government will be able to reduce its overall debt by the end of the year.

Provisional figures for August, the latest available, suggest the total national debt stands at 97.8% – higher than it was in both September 2022 and March 2023. But the figure is still lower than it was at the end of 2022, when total net debt was 99.5% of GDP, and after a spike in the early summer has fallen slightly in recent months.

This is further complicated by the fact that the government usually uses a different figure – public sector net debt excluding the Bank of England. Once this figure is used, total debt is higher than it was at the end of 2022, rising slightly from 88% of GDP to 89.3%.

The vagueness of Sunak’s original comment will probably allow him to argue that he is working to bring debt down, even though by multiple indicators it isn’t falling.

Verdict: No

Rishi Sunak on 25 October 2022 entering Number 10 on his first day as Prime Minister. Credit: GettyRishi Sunak on 25 October 2022 entering Number 10 on his first day as Prime Minister. Credit: Getty
Rishi Sunak on 25 October 2022 entering Number 10 on his first day as Prime Minister. Credit: Getty

This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level

This was the most notable section of Sunak’s first speech, coming after Boris Johnson’s government had collapsed in sleaze from Partygate to the Chris Pincher case. And it’s fair to say that within hours this statement was already looking questionable.

Suella Braverman, who was Home Secretary under Liz Truss, had been forced to resign after sending sensitive official documents to an MP outside the government from her personal email address. However hours after this speech she had been reinstated, already calling Sunak’s comments into question. 

Sunak also appointed Nadhim Zahawi to Cabinet as Minister without Portfolio and Chair of the Conservative Party. In the summer of 2022, the Independent had reported that Zahawi was under investigation from HMRC and the National Crime Agency over his tax affairs.

Zahawi was eventually forced to pay a tax penalty of an estimated £4.8 million to HMRC while he was Chancellor in August 2022. In October, Sunak promoted him again to Cabinet, although says that “no issues” were raised. This is despite news reporting about the investigation over the summer. On 8 January this year, the Sun revealed Zahawi’s tax penalty, and it took until 29 January for Sunak to sack him from the Cabinet. 

Sunak failed to show up when MPs voted on the Partygate report, which found Boris Johnson had deliberately misled Parliament. Labour’s Shadow Commons Leader Thangam Debbonaire said: "Despite promising integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level, he has shown he is too weak to stand up to Boris Johnson and his sycophants."

Verdict - no

And the heart of that mandate is our manifesto. I will deliver on its promise

Where to start with this one as for an unelected Prime Minister, even Liz Truss was voted in by Tory members, Sunak has been remarkably calm about axing parts of the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto. This most notably saw the end of the northern section of HS2 and consequently Northern Powerhouse Rail, which would have linked Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds using the high-speed tracks.

The 2019 manifesto’s key promise was about levelling up the north, which included and NPR and said the government would “work with leaders of the Midlands and the North to decide the optimal outcome” for HS2. Both West Midlands Mayor Andy Street and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham were both in favour of the bullet train.

The environment was also a big part of Johnson’s 2019 manifesto, and it included banning new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and closing down coal and gas plants. Sunak has moved the car deadline back to 2035 and granted hundreds of new oil and gas licences for the North Sea. Johnson’s manifesto also promised to reduce the number of people coming to the UK every year. However, net migration is currently at a record high of 606,000. And on Monday (23 October) Michael Gove announced a delay to the ban on no-fault evictions, another section in the 2019 manifesto.

Ahead of the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg asked Sunak who voted for the policies that he was set to announce - such as the scrapping of HS2. Sunak seemed slightly perplexed, he responded “because I’m doing what I believe is right”.

Verdict: No

Together we can achieve incredible things. We will create a future worthy of the sacrifices so many have made and fill tomorrow, and everyday thereafter with hope

This is not as clear a promise as the previous statements, but shows that Sunak wants to fill people “every day … with hope”. However, despite a whole year of Sunak the polls have hardly changed - with Labour still holding onto a 20-plus point lead. Part of this is undoubtedly malaise and apathy over the Conservatives, after four terms in power and the disastrous exits of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss from Number 10. 

But Sunak is also quite a cautious politician, who has failed to give voters a coherent narrative as to why they should vote for him. In January, he made five very technocratic pledges - three around the economy, as well as cutting NHS waiting lists and stopping the boats. He’s failing on three of these things, and without these promises there’s little else to inspire the electorate. ‘I will reduce the national debt’ is hardly a slogan associated with hope.

Sunak has tried to change his image with the conference slogan of “long-term decisions for a brighter future”. He attempted to paint himself as the change candidate while saying Sir Keir Starmer is “more of the same”, and his long-term decisions included axing HS2, watering down net zero measures, banning smoking and reforming A-levels. This incoherent array of policies don’t really give a clear overall narrative to Sunak’s politics, and, according to the polls, don’t appear to have inspired much hope.

Verdict: No

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