Politics

A damning list of Rishi Sunak’s broken promises and screeching U-turns, from net zero to EU law

It's not just his big net zero U-turn. The prime minister hasn't been shy to go back on his word

Rishi Sunak u-turn

Attention has been on Keir Starmer's U-turns. But the prime minister has been busy too. Image: Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street/Flickr

Rishi Sunak has let promises and pledges fall by the wayside since he became prime minister in October 2022, in a series of U-turns from house building to NHS fines.

While Labour leader Keir Starmer’s changed stances on child benefits, green investment, and more have been in the spotlight, Sunak has been busy. He’s not shy of going back on his word.

Manifesto commitments and promises made during leadership contests have been abandoned, while some reversals have been so frequent it’s hard to keep track of where it all began.

As the Tory party gathers in Manchester for conference and prepares for an ever-closer general election, here’s a rundown of U-turns from unelected prime minister Rishi Sunak.

Net zero and the ban on petrol cars

Sunak said he remains committed to achieving the UK’s net zero targets. But experts say his recent changes – designed to be “pragmatic and proportionate” – actually make us less likely to be able to hit the legally-binding climate goal.

His decision to push the ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars back from 2030 did not break a specific promise made in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto, but it went back on a policy introduced by the government in November 2020.

No new tax rises

The 2019 manifesto the Tories promised no increases to any of the main taxes. How’s that going?

Not well. This parliament is the most tax-raising on record – and Rishi Sunak’s not exempt from the blame.

“The government may decide to announce tax cuts in the run-up to the next election,” was the verdict of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

“But there is no world in which this parliament – or indeed the period since Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister – turns out to be anything other than a tax-raising one.”

Ditching house building targets

With a housing crisis raging, a promise to introduce mandatory house building targets of 300,000 new homes a year might have seemed sensible. There is a housing crisis, after all.

Downing Street even said it was “central to our levelling up mission”.

The 2019 manifesto promise didn’t pan out, and in December Sunak’s housing secretary Michael Gove announced the goals will now simply be advisory, a “starting point”. The decision came after pressure from Tory backbenchers.

This change unsurprisingly means the government will likely miss its goal of 300,000 new homes a year, MPs on the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities committee warned.

Attending COP27

Sunak originally said he had “pressing domestic commitments” and couldn’t attend the COP27 climate summit in Egypt in November 2022.

But anger – including from Tory MP and COP26 president Alok Sharma – led him to reverse course and show up anyway.

“There is no long-term prosperity without action on climate change. There is no energy security without investing in renewables,” Sunak tweeted as he announced his change of heart.

“That is why I will attend COP27 next week: to deliver on Glasgow’s legacy of building a secure and sustainable future.”

£10 fines for missed NHS appointments

What better way to tackle the NHS backlog than to fine patients who miss their appointments? That was one of Sunak’s more eye-catching policies while running against Liz Truss. Sunak lost that contest, but was in Number 10 before long.

The proposal – which the British Medical Association warned would “make matters worse” – was scrapped by PM Sunak in October 2022, with a Downing Street spokesperson saying it was “not the right time”.

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Reviewing EU law

The ‘Brexit Bonfire’ promised to review or scrap all laws brought in while the UK was in the EU. A nice present for Brexiteers, you might think, ditching all that European red tape by the end of 2023.

Except Rishi Sunak’s government won’t be doing that. In April, it was revealed that after a U-turn just 800 pieces of EU law would be binned by the end of the year. In fairness, it sounded like hard work anyway.

The decision wound up Jacob Rees-Mogg, who told PA Sunak had broken a clear promise.

“This is an admission of administrative failure, an inability of Whitehall to do the necessary work and an incapability of ministers to push this through their own departments,” he said. 

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Putting migrants on cruise ships

While running to be Tory leader, Sunak promised to use empty cruise ships to accommodate asylum seekers. By the end of October, the plan had been dropped amid warnings from government lawyers that the scheme would contravene the 1951 Refugee Convention.

However, the government has promised that asylum seekers will move onto the Bibby Stockholm barge within weeks. The Fire Brigades Union has criticised the barge as a “potential death trap”.

Allowing more onshore wind farms

In December, Rishi Sunak was caught in a U-turn as he allowed more wind farms on UK shores.

He had promised never to relax the ban while running for leader.

And yet, there was space for another, as in July it emerged he was likely to backtrack on this decision The Observer reported that a consultation on relaxing the rules on new onshore wind farms would result in only a “minimal relaxation of planning rules”.

It came amid criticism of Sunak for abandoning green leadership. Former prime minister Theresa May said the UK was “putting at risk its reputation as a leader in climate policy”.

Although, technically, the double U-turn may leave Sunak facing in the original direction.

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