Happy Rishiversary! Highs and lows of Rishi Sunak’s first year in power

LONDON — Happy anniversary to one of the UK’s most talked-about couples: No. 10 Downing Street and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

It’s been a tumultuous love affair, with a will-they-won’t-they start — and enough bumps in the road to keep a local pothole repair team busy.

As Sunak tries to restore the reputation of his governing Tories — still languishing in the polls ahead of an expected election next year — POLITICO takes a trip down memory lane with a month-by-month rundown of some of the key highlights. Buckle up!

October 2022

It finally happened. After one failed leadership run — in which he lost to Liz Truss and, in a way, to a lettuce — Sunak was elected the new leader of the Conservatives on October 24, 2022.

A day later he became prime minister, and vowed his government would be marked by “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.” That was in no way a massive sub-tweet of Boris Johnson.

Sunak’s first port of call was to pick his cabinet. He took a slow and steady approach, which No. 10 insisted was “not indecisiveness” — even as some MPs, accustomed to the adrenalin of the Truss and Johnson administrations, found the wait tedious. Sunak’s first few days seemed to mark him out as a PM in control.

Success rating: 9/10. Congrats, Rishi!

November 2022 

November saw a scrap about the COP climate summit. Having initially said he wouldn’t attend the COP27 bash, Sunak caved and traveled to Egypt for the conference on November 7, insisting he absolutely loved the planet.

Later in the month, Sunak had the fun task of creating a new government budget with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, seeking to right the economic ship after the drama of Truss’ brief spell in office.

The cheery document, billed in some quarters as Austerity 2.0 but actually delaying a lot of pain until after the next general election, unveiled a £55 billion package of tax increases and spending cuts, an attempt to ensure that Britain’s economic downturn was “shallower, and hurts people less,” according to Hunt. Something for the bumper sticker!

Its key measures indeed survived contact with the House of Commons and, crucially, didn’t spook the markets.

Success rating: 7/10. COP kerfuffle notwithstanding, Sunak and Hunt could breathe a sigh of relief for a whole eight seconds.

December 2022

Calling it a “winter of discontent” would be lazy plagiarism. So let’s go with “winter of discontent 2.0.”

A whopping 843,000 working days were lost in December to strikes, according to Britain’s statistics authority — the highest since those revolutionary days of November 2011.

With nurses, train drivers, and postal workers all downing tools (or mail?) throughout December, Sunak had a huge problem on his hands, and it didn’t get sorted until some time later. Despite the British love of moaning about train delays, the public largely supported the striking workers — especially the nurses.

Success rating: 3/10. ‘Tis the season of goodwill.

January 2023 

It was a month of ups and downs for Sunak, who gave some … mixed messages on following the rules.

Sunak swiftly fired his embattled Conservative Party chairman Nadhim Zahawi after an independent probe found that Zahawi had not been sufficiently transparent about his private dealings with Britain’s tax authorities.

In a letter to Zahawi confirming his sacking, Sunak reminded us all he had vowed to put “integrity, professionalism, and accountability at every level” of his administration.

This is the same dude who started the month by … getting fined by police for not wearing a seatbelt.

Success rating: 5/10. Big boys wear their seatbelts. 

February 2023 

Sunak seemed strapped in this month, and it ended up being a pretty good one for the prime minister, who finally managed to reach a deal with the EU over contentious post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland.

Sounding like a proud father at a press conference in Windsor, Sunak said Britain and the EU “may have had our differences in the past, but we are allies, trading partners and friends,” and hailed “a new chapter in our relationship.” A promised rebellion by allies of Sunak’s old nemesis Boris Johnson later came to nothing, which definitely didn’t provide Sunak with a good old chuckle.

Success rating: 10/10. Sunak managed the previously unthinkable: moving post-Brexit policy forward without loads of kicking and screaming from the Conservative Party. Plenty of time for that later!

March 2023 

March saw the U.K. build on its much-heralded AUKUS pact with Australia and the U.S., with Sunak joining President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at a submarine base in California to hail a new defense mega-deal between the three nations. It marked another win for Sunak’s plan to repair Britain’s battered image abroad and create jobs along the way.

Closer to home, however, the PM had some proper first-world problems brewing.

As voters grappled with ever-rising energy costs, the Guardian revealed that the mega-rich leader’s swimming pool in his Yorkshire home used so much energy that the local electricity grid had to be upgraded.

Such everyman woes provided a great backdrop for another government budget. Chancellor Hunt had them cheering from the rafters across the U.K. as he declared that the country would duck a technical recession this year.

Plans to help with the eye-watering cost of childcare and address Britain’s sluggish economic growth also featured prominently in another fiscal statement that may not have shifted many votes, but came off without major drama.

Success rating: Big deal and a big budget. Rishi, go have a swim to cool off. 7/10.

April 2023 

April was — whisper it – a pretty quiet month, no small feat in British politics.

There was the small matter of an investigation being launched into a potential breach of the MP code of conduct by Sunak. It would be a whole four months, however, before that probe found he had indeed broken the rules, but only as a result of “confusion.” We’ve all been there.

Success rating: 5/10. A holding-pattern month.

May 2023

In May, Rishi faced his first big electoral test as prime minister: local elections. He didn’t do well, with the Conservatives losing over 1,000 seats, and both Labour and the Liberal Democrats making big gains.

Success rating: 2/10. Blame the voters!

June 2023

Still, nothing proves you’re confronting your problems at home like … heading to the other side of the Atlantic for a big visit to America. Sunak got his global mojo back on a trip that saw an unlikely bromance blossom between Sunak and Biden.

Biden pronounced the special relationship “in real good shape” — and even got Sunak’s name right this time (if not his job title.)

The rest of Sunak’s month was dominated by an angry row with Boris Johnson, who quit in a huff alongside a few allies after a damning report on his conduct in the Partygate affair. The row revealed how few acolytes Johnson still had in the parliament, and arguably strengthened Sunak’s position as the only game in town.

Success rating: 9/10. If it doesn’t work out here, Sunak could always make it big stateside.

July 2023

You can always count on a by-election or two to spice things up, and these were a mixed bag for Sunak. The prime minister’s Tories got a thumping in fights for the parliamentary seats of Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome.

There was one glimmer of hope, however: A narrow and unexpected win in Uxbridge, Johnson’s now-vacant seat, showed Team Sunak that targeted campaigning against environmental policies seen by some as overbearing could pay off.

Also in June, Sunak made a bold pay offer to striking public sector workers, and helped ease industrial tensions.

Success rating: 6/10. Few expected the Uxbridge result, even if Sunak’s fortunes elsewhere looked dicey.

August 2023

August saw grim headlines on what the government had billed as “small boats week” — a chance to show off all the hard work Sunak’s government was doing to stop asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in unsafe vessels.

As the week unfolded, disaster struck one element of the government’s tough asylum policy. A plan to move migrants onto the controversial Bibby Stockholm barge instead of putting them up in expensive hotel accommodation was derailed by concerns about legionella bacteria in the water supply. It was a PR headache for a government that hardly needed one.

On the brighter side, Sunak carried out a smooth and limited government reshuffle without anybody calling him mean names.

Success rating: 4/10. Nobody had “legionella” on the comms grid.

September 2023 

Mr. Brexit Fix-it returned in September as a deal struck by Sunak ensured the U.K. successfully rejoined the EU’s Horizon multibillion-euro science funding scheme. It was another piece of unfinished Brexit business resolved, to the delight of top scientists and other massive nerds.

Sunak also seemed to land on a clear domestic dividing line in September. In a hastily-arranged Downing Street speech after his plans leaked, Sunak took a big red pen to parts of the government’s climate agenda, announcing a slowing of several key U.K. green policies.

A fierce backlash ensued from business groups, climate activists and some members of Sunak’s own Conservative Party.

But the PM’s supporters saw it as the first time Sunak had drawn bold lines in the sand ahead of the election, gambling that tapping into anxiety among motorists could see the Uxbridge trick repeated.

Success rating: 5/10. Nice Horizon deal, shame about the planet!

October 2023

The Conservative Party conference was dominated by … Liz Truss and trains.

Yep, the star of last year’s show made a triumphant comeback on the conference fringes, where she was greeted like a returning hero and urged Sunak to push for economic growth. Truss — plus Brexiteer-in-chief Nigel Farage, who swanned around the place — showed just how fractious the Tories remain, with plenty of Conservative leadership wannabes flaunting their wares.

The conference meanwhile saw endless speculation about whether Sunak would cancel a key part of a major high-speed rail link, an announcement he saved for his big speech at the close, a treat to the North of England, which famously hates useful transport links.

October would get grimmer still for Sunak, as two more by-election defeats suggested Labour really is on the comeback trail. There’s always November!

Success rating: 4/10. A month of Labour gains, trains and Nigel-mobiles.



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Is democracy at risk of extinction?

This article was originally published in Italian

According to a survey by Open society foundations, more than a third of 18-35 year olds favour a military regime or an authoritarian leader. How did it come to this?

Do people still believe in democracy? This was the question asked by a recent Open Society Foundations poll, which for the second consecutive year surveyed more than 36,000 people in 30 countries around the world to hear their opinions and feelings about human rights, democracy, and other important issues facing countries around the world.

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The “Open Society Barometer: Is Democracy Effective?” survey, one of the largest global polls ever conducted, was conducted between May and July 2023 and the results, published in the run-up to International Democracy Day, are surprising, to say the least.

The concept of democracy is still widely popular in every region of the world: 86% of respondents say they would prefer to live in a democratic state and 62% believe that democracy is the best possible form of government. In Italy, the results were 91% and 69% respectively.

Only 20% of people said that authoritarian states are more capable of satisfying citizens’ demands and are more efficient in dealing with major issues at home and in the international arena.

What is surprising, however, is that although trust in democracy is still high across the board, the age group that is most sceptical about its effectiveness is the youngest one, those aged 18 to 35.

If we look at the data disaggregated by age group, the percentage of citizens who consider democracy to be the best possible form of government drops to 55% among the youngest, while it is 61.4% among the 35 to 55-year-olds and 69% among those older than 56. 

What is more, 42% of those aged 18-35 said that a military regime is a good way to govern a country, while 35% are in favour of a ‘strong’ leader who dispenses with elections and parliament. In Italy, the percentages drop to 24 and 32%, respectively. 

But how did we get here – and what does it mean for the survival of democracy?

“It is really worrying that the lowest support is in the youngest group, the 18 to 35-year-olds because today we have the largest generation of young people. Half of the world is under 30,” says Natalie Samarasinghe, Global director for advocacy at Open Society Foundations.

But, she says, context is important. “It is a combination of factors. We are facing a generation that has experienced a series of shocks: economic crises, COVID-19, climate change, and it is more than proven that authoritarian states have not handled these crises well, but neither have democracies. When you grow up in an era of instability and crisis, you have little trust in politicians. So I think this translates to scepticism about the system as a whole.”

In addition to the feeling that politicians have failed to deal with the major crises of recent years, there is also the impression ‘that they are worse off’ than their parents in terms of socio-economic conditions and, finally, the lack of representation: “How many young people feel that they have a say in democracy when the issues they fight for are never at the top of the agenda?”, asks Samarasinghe.

This disaffection for democracy thus stems from a general and continuous mismatch between what citizens demand and what is then actually delivered by the political class. On average, about one-third of the respondents do not trust politicians to work in their interests and address the issues they care about. Primarily poverty, inequality and human rights, climate change and corruption.

The responsibility of other generations

Gianfranco Pasquino, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, agrees with Samarasinghe not only on the socio-economic difficulties that have marked the last generations but also on the responsibility of the political class. “Parties have become inadequate structures. Parties teach democracy, practise it and show how to practise it. A great American political scientist wrote a book in the early 1940s saying that parties are born with democracy and democracy is born with parties. Consequently, democracy dies if parties die and instead thrives if parties recover. But I do not see this effort on the part of politicians,” Pasquino explains.

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However, the professor also attributes some of the responsibility for young people’s disaffection with the democratic system to the older generations, who are progressively more pro-democracy. Among the over 56 interviewed, the most authoritarian regimes are not particularly popular: only 20% are open to a military state, and 26% to a strong leader.

A considerable difference with younger people, but one that is easily explained according to Pasquino: “Quite simply, many of them have lived part of their lives under an authoritarian regime and know that they would never want to go back. Instead, they have had positive or at least better experiences with democracy than young people. But it would have been better if they had passed on this information, feelings and emotions to their children. Perhaps they did not do it enough.”

Is democracy at risk of extinction?

So what does this data tell us about the health and future of democracy? Is there really a risk that the democratic system will gradually fade away? Neither expert sees this as even remotely possible.

“Democracies continue to appear, and the established ones have never fallen. It is actually wrong to say that there is a crisis of democracy, there are problems in the functioning within some democracies, for example,Hungary, for example, Poland, but democracy is not in crisis,” says Professor Pasquino.

Samarasinghe goes even deeper: “The trend has always been and will be towards more freedom. And I think this survey also shows that there is this desire. Only that people now see a discrepancy between this desire and their lives. But I don’t think their solution is ‘OK, we will turn to an authoritarian system’. It may be a short-term solution, but not a long-term one. The values that people personally hold dear, including human rights, are so deeply rooted even in countries that currently have more authoritarian governments, that they cannot possibly fade away.”

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Rather, the concern is another: what can happen during this period of misalignment. “I think political leaders, national and international, need to keep in mind what the consequences of inaction are. It is not just a matter of saying: ‘OK, we don’t want to give up coal production now because we have this industry in the lobby and we might lose the next election.’ The whole system is at stake here.”

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