Rishi Sunak has taken office as the UK’s third prime minister in as many months following the resignation of Liz Truss.
In his first speech outside Downing Street, he pledged to fix the “mistakes” made by his predecessor and to take the “difficult decisions” needed to steer the country through the “profound economic crisis” it currently faces.
All this whilst also delivering the manifesto that won the Conservatives a landslide victory back in 2019.
Even allowing for the tendency for even a determinedly sober politician like
Viewed from a city like Stoke-on-Trent, a city where the Tories won all three parliamentary seats for the first time when the ‘red wall’ came crashing down in December 2019, it looks like the stuff of fantasy.
My hometown is a city with deep seated social and economic problems, many of which have been in play for decades. These include low educational attainment, 33.8% of adults have no qualifications compared to a national average of 22.5%; low levels of property ownership, and poor levels of public health.
The cost-of-living crisis has only made the resulting inequalities worse, in July of this year a report by the Centre for Cities identified Stoke-on-Trent as being hit harder than anywhere else in the West Midlands. Poor quality and badly insulated housing and the city’s notoriously inadequate public transport system forcing people to rely on cars to get around were cited as contributing factors.
Rishi Sunak may believe he and his government have “tough decisions” to make in the months ahead, I don’t doubt it for a moment.
Toughness though can have more than one meaning, it is undeniably stressful to have to make decisions that will impact the lives of millions of people. But if you are doing so from behind a desk in Whitehall, you are at a significant risk of being removed from the problem.
Try making those same kind of decisions about how a shrinking budget can be made to meet ever growing costs in a house you don’t know if you can afford to live in for much longer and the people impacted if you get it wrong are your children. That is a whole lot tougher and something people in cities like Stoke have to do every day of the week.
Poverty is a hammer that batters everything it encounters into the ground, if it hits you during childhood your chances of getting fully back to your feet again are limited. In 2019 voters in the three Stoke constituencies lent the Tories their vote based on Boris Johnson’s promise to ‘level up’ places that had been forgotten. This has since been shown up to be the sales pitch for a brand of snake oil as dodgy as anything ever sold from a covered wagon.
What cities like Stoke need now is real action to break the cycle of poverty that hands on misery from one generation to the next.
Not a repeat of the beauty contest for the desperate where towns compete against each other for crumbs from the table of the powerful. What is needed is a concerted plan of action of the sort that can only be delivered by a central government that lifts the whole region up together.
Delivering a plan like that will not be cheap, although the costs will be less than those of doing nothing and having to endlessly patch up the tattered fabric of a failing society. It won’t be quick either, bringing it to completion will take longer than the lifetime of one government.
If people in Stoke and towns like it are to have a future that isn’t one shaped by hardship then a genuinely tough decision needs to be made – one that will need to go against the ideology that has dominated economic policy for 40 years.
The question is does Rishi Sunak, or Keir Starmer for that matter, have the political courage to take it?