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Sunak completes 100 days in power under pressure from strikes, crises and threat of recession


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The United Kingdom this week gave a taste of what the first hundred days of Rishi Sunak’s government were like: strikes, scandals and an economy in crisis. Since last Sunday (29), the British prime minister had to dismiss a member of his cabinet, was warned that his country may be the only advanced economy to end the year in recession and faced the biggest day of strikes in more than a decade.

Sunak, 42, took office on Oct. 25 as Britain’s first non-white leader, the youngest in two centuries and richer than King Charles III. He arrived as the third prime minister of the year, after the resignations of Liz Truss and Boris Johnson – marked, respectively, by poor decisions in the economic area and inappropriate parties during the pandemic. Sunak promised, a hundred days ago, to guide his government by “integrity, professionalism and responsibility at all levels”.

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The phrase does not fit with the case that resulted in the fall of Nadhim Zahawi, president of the Conservative Party who had ministerial status. After weeks in the hot seat, he was sacked on Sunday for breaching the code of ethics by failing to reveal, when he arrived in Boris’s government, that he was being investigated for tax irregularities or that he had settled nearly £5m for tax evasion.

It was the second casualty in the team since Sunak took over – in November, Gavin Williamson left after accusations of moral harassment –, and there is already pressure for the removal of another member, this time vice-premier Dominic Raab, also investigated for moral harassment.

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Political episodes account for a fraction of British discontent with the government. This Wednesday, 500,000 people crossed their arms and took to the streets in cities like London, Cambridge, Liverpool and Oxford. Considered the biggest since 2011, the strike was led by teachers, accompanied by civil servants and railway workers.

The strikes, which have intensified since December, are caused by the high cost of living, aggravated by the highest inflation rate in the last 40 years. In addition to these categories, nurses, ambulance drivers and firefighters also claim salary adjustments that overcome the rise of more than 10% in prices, driven by food and energy.

As the government has refused to give in to the strikers’ demands, pressure from the streets is likely to continue in the coming months, with strikes already scheduled until at least March 20.

The workers’ complaints are part of a larger picture of the economic crisis that shows no signs of abating. This Thursday, the British Central Bank is expected to increase, for the tenth time, the interest rate to 4% –almost double the euro zone–, another impact on the budget of families that pay mortgages.

According to projections by the International Monetary Fund, the UK economy will shrink by 0.6% this year, and the country will be the only one in the G7, a group of the world’s main economies, to enter into recession. “Economic activity is a serious problem. There is very high private debt, people who can’t pay the high interest rates don’t buy, and the economy goes into recession,” explains Leila Talani, professor of international political economy at King’s College from London.

In his assessment, the crisis is linked to mistakes that the Conservative Party made over almost 13 years in government, including Brexit, which celebrated its three-year anniversary this week. “The Conservatives governed very badly. Brexit is one of the reasons the UK is in a recession and the rest of Europe is not.” This year, the euro zone should grow 0.7%, predicts the IMF.

This context directly interferes with Sunak’s performance. “The first hundred days of government were disastrous. The conservatives don’t have any leadership, and Sunak’s is residual. Only he was left, no one else, and that was the solution for not bringing forward the elections.”

According to Talani, the coming months should continue to be one of opposition to Sunak’s policies, either because the economic situation should not improve, or because there is a perception that the government has already come to an end. “Everyone understood that the government is in its last stage.”

YouGov poll shows 56% of Britons say they disapprove of Sunak as prime minister. Almost half (45%) of voters are ready to bring the main opposition Labor Party back to power – only 26% would vote for the Conservatives. “It is, today, impossible for the Conservatives to win. And an eventual Labor government should be moderate, one that will probably seek to reach agreements with the European Union. Without that, one cannot go ahead”, evaluates Talani.

Sunak’s situation contrasts with that of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, 46, who also completed 100 days as prime minister this week. Her arrival in power also had an air of novelty, as she was young, the first woman and the first from the ultra-right to govern since the fascist Benito Mussolini.

But, unlike Sunak, the beginning of the Meloni government has been one of relative stability, despite controversial internal policies, such as the siege of NGOs that save migrants in the Mediterranean. Faced with a fragmented opposition and in the process of self-analysis, his party, Brothers of Italy, remains the favorite, with 29.7%, according to YouTrend calculations – a higher percentage than that obtained in the September elections, 26%.

Since taking office, Meloni has backtracked on issues that were part of his coalition’s program, such as fuel taxes. Unlike what he previously advocated, he did not renew a subsidy granted by his predecessor, Mario Draghi, which raised prices and led to a gas station strike. Even the controversial anti-rave decree ended up being rewritten and softened in the course of Parliament.

“The Meloni government’s only objective is to stay in power. That’s why they will do anything to stay in power, including not carrying out policies that they would like,” said Talani, who is also director of the Center for Italian Politics at King’s College. In her view, maintaining the subsidy could have an impact on public accounts and provoke negative reactions from the financial market.

In the name of a political project that could last at least five years –the next elections are in 2027–, for now the position is one of prudence. “It is a radical right-wing government on internal issues, but on external issues it will do everything the others ask. It will be European, pro-NATO, pro-Ukraine. The important thing is not to lose its place.”

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