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British voters welcome new leader Sunak, but not his party


LONDON — Rishi Sunak has been British Prime Minister for a month. In the tumultuous world of British politics in 2022, that’s a feat.

Sunak, who took office a month ago on Friday October 25, stabilized the nation after the brief tenure of his predecessor Liz Truss. Britain’s first prime minister of color, Sunak has stabilized the economy, reassured Washington’s allies in Kyiv and even appeased the European Union after years of fighting between Britain and the bloc.

But Sunak’s challenges are just beginning. He faces a slowing economy, a cost of living crisis and a ruling Conservative party that is fractious and increasingly unpopular after 12 years in power.

PARTIAL POPULARITY

Opinion polls have good and bad news for Sunak. The public likes the 42-year-old former investment banker, but his party is another matter.

In a survey by Ipsos pollster, 47% of those polled said they liked the prime minister, while 41% disliked him.

“It’s certainly better than what Boris Johnson was getting earlier this year,” said Gideon Skinner, head of policy research at Ipsos. But he said Sunak’s popularity “shows no signs of wearing off the Conservative Party brand”.

In the same poll, the Conservative Party was liked by only 26% and hated by 62% – the worst numbers for the party in 15 years. The Ipsos phone survey of 1,004 adults is considered accurate to within plus or minus four percentage points.

Many voters welcome Sunak as a change from Truss and his predecessor Johnson, who resigned in July after three years of scandal in office. But the party has been in power since 2010, making it difficult for conservatives to avoid blame for the country’s financial woes.

Persistent allegations of misconduct are also tarnishing his image. On Wednesday, Sunak appointed a senior lawyer to investigate bullying allegations against his deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab.

It is not impossible for the conservatives to rebuild their popularity before the next election, due by the end of 2024. But it will not be easy. Current polls suggest Labor would win hands down.

SICK ECONOMY

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Sunak, then Britain’s Treasury chief, gained popularity by spending billions to prop up shuttered businesses and pay the wages of furloughed workers.

Now he must deliver a bitter medicine. The British economy is weighed down by the pandemic, by Brexit and above all by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has sent global energy prices soaring.

Millions of people in Britain have seen their energy bills soar, although a government-imposed cap has prevented even higher prices. Pandemic-related backlogs and staff shortages have led to record waiting times for healthcare at Britain’s National Health Service.

The situation was made worse by Truss’ misguided program of unfunded tax cuts in September, which torpedoed the UK’s reputation for economic prudence, weakened the pound, drove up borrowing costs and triggered government intervention. central bank emergency. Truss resigned last month after less than two months on the job.

“I fully appreciate how difficult things are,” Sunak said in his maiden address to the nation on Oct. 25, warning of “tough decisions ahead.”

An emergency budget last week helped support the pound and calm markets, at the cost of £25bn ($30bn) in tax hikes and the prospect of government spending cuts.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development forecast this week that Britain’s economy will contract by 0.4% in 2023 and grow by just 0.2% in 2024, the worst outlook among the industrialized nations of the Group of Seven. .

WAR IN EUROPE

Boris Johnson’s departure has sparked concern in Kyiv, where his unwavering support for Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion has garnered admiration and respect.

Britain has given Ukraine 2.3 billion pounds ($2.8 billion) in military aid since the start of the war, more than any other country except the United States, and pressured its allies to do more to help Kyiv.

Sunak traveled to Kyiv last week to reassure President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that British policy would not change under his leadership. “I’m proud of how the UK stood by you from the start,” Sunak told Zelenskyy. “And I am here today to say that the UK will continue to support Ukraine.”

London continues its support, announcing last week that it will deliver anti-aircraft guns, anti-drone technology and three Sea King helicopters to Ukraine.

But if support for Ukraine is assured, defense spending could be reduced. Sunak abandoned Truss’ commitment to increase defense spending to 3% of gross domestic product by 2030.

BREXIT HEADACHES

Britain’s relations with its closest neighbors and major trading partners have been strained since it left the European Union, now made up of 27 nations, in 2020. Johnson and Truss both seemed delighted to annoy the bloc to appease the powerful eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party.

Sunak was more emollient, making warm appeals to European leaders in the days after he took office. Securing concrete change is more difficult, given the power that ardent Brexiteers hold within the Tories.

Britain’s departure from the EU in 2020 led to customs checks and other barriers for businesses trading with the bloc, sparked a political crisis in Northern Ireland and ended the free movement of nationals from the EU to Great Britain to fill vacant jobs.

Britain could ease trade frictions if it agrees to align with EU rules in certain areas, such as veterinary or food standards. But after reports the government was seeking closer ties riled Eurosceptics, Sunak said this week he would not agree to “alignment with EU laws”.

David Henig, a trade expert at the European Center for International Political Economy, said the backlash “revealed how deep the European problem is for Rishi Sunak and for the Conservative Party”.

He said Sunak is a lifelong supporter of Brexit, but also a pragmatist who “just wants a relationship that works – and it clearly doesn’t at the moment”.

“I think the problem is that he doesn’t have any big new ideas on how to make this work, and a lot of internal opposition,” Henig said. ———

Follow all AP reporting on British politics at https://apnews.com/hub/british-politics

ABC News

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