Sunak's first 100 days as prime minister and what they mean for trade

Thu 2 Feb 2023
Posted by: Richard Cree

Rishi Sunak sat at table in office with hands clasped in front of him

The first 100 days has become an important marker in any leader’s tenure in a top role, having first being coined by US president Franklin D Roosevelt during his efforts to fight the effects of the Great Depression.

As Rishi Sunak clocks up day 100 as prime minister, the IOE&IT Daily Update reflects on how things have gone so far, what he has achieved and what it means for the trade community.

Marco Forgione, director general of Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT), says that Sunak achieved the first and most important objective, which was to restore some order after the chaotic events of early Autumn.

“Sunak took the job at a difficult moment for the UK. It’s a ‘plus’ that in his first 100 days he has managed to steady the ship. Markets are clearly calmer and the economy is no longer in freefall. But there is a long way to go. From the perspective of the trade community, it is good to see that relations with the EU have improved significantly, compared to under his predecessors.

“There have been positive noises with regards to talks on reforming the Northern Ireland Protocol and this would be a big win if they can pull it off. But ensuring all actors involved in these negotiations can settle on a compromise will not be easy. Elsewhere, it could be a busy year in terms of more trade deals being signed, including a potentially huge one with India.”

Sunak has set out his stall with a five-point plan, saying he wants to be judged on whether or not he achieves the objectives of halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing debt, cutting NHS waiting lists, and stopping small-boat crossings to the UK.

Forgione adds that, “from a trade perspective, halving inflation and growing the economy are pivotal to boosting confidence in traders and encouraging inward investment.”

Hold the front page 

Tom Lane, communications lead at IOE&IT, adds that from a media and communications perspective, Sunak has had a balancing act to perform in his first 100 days. “He’s had to focus on uniting his party behind his leadership and connecting with voters. Almost every day there is some mention of the PM’s leadership in the media.”

Lane adds that it’s difficult, even for the PM, to always set the agenda.

“It’s not easy to determine the issues that play out on the front page. Sunak’s first 100 days have unfolded in the shadow of mass strikes, a disunited party and attempts to reset the UK’s relationship with the EU.”

Trade policy

Hunter Matson, trade policy and research specialist at IOE&IT, points out that in terms of trade policy, the first 100 days of the Sunak government have seen a pivot from speed to quality when it comes to trade agreements.

“Both the prime minister and the secretary of state for international trade, Kemi Badenoch, have publicly signalled this new approach as evidenced by the coming and going of the Diwali deadline date for a new Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with India. This was set in the final days of the Johnson administration and carried over during the brief tenure of Liz Truss.

“Badenoch has indicated that the Department for International Trade will explore other instruments to increasing UK trade and will diversify away from a singular focus on FTAs.”

Matson says he would like to see the Sunak administration place a greater emphasis on trade in services.

“The UK is a global leader in financial and legal services and ranks highly for professional and business services and the creative industries. Investing more in these areas will provide growth opportunities for the entire country and help the UK become more competitive in international trade.”

Brian Leapman, specialist researcher at IOE&IT, agrees that there has not been a lot of activity in this area since Sunak arrived at Downing Street.

“Not much has happened in financial services, particularly around UK-EU co-operation. And it seems unlikely it will, as the EU wants to move away from dependence on UK clearing markets.

“The only bright light in the 100 days is that the Treasury has announced the likelihood of a mutual recognition agreement being concluded with Switzerland during this year.”

Leapman adds that this shows that, having left the EU the UK can take advantage of agility that the trading bloc lacks, “the UK finance industry will continue to do what it does best, which is innovate.”

The politics of 100 days

It is worth remembering that Sunak – the youngest prime minister for 200 years – is also relatively “young” in terms of his political career.

Assessing his political performance in the first 100 days, Grace Thompson, public affairs adviser at IOE&IT, says he’s taken a more cautious approach than he did as chancellor.

“When people think of Sunak, images come to mind of him in his hoody practising delivery of a budget or serving food in Wagamama to promote his ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme. As chancellor, he used to be quite the PR stuntman.

“Since becoming PM, in the wake of the economic turmoil caused by his predecessor, Sunak has been more cautious, not only with his media approach, but also with his overall style of government.

“This is clear in trade policy. Where his two immediate predecessors were keen to leverage trade deals as a way to show the UK's ‘quick wins’, Sunak is slow and deliberate, prioritising details over show. This approach may have paid off in some areas, including the protocol. Having a more conciliatory voice across the table from the EU goes a long way in background chats.”

As to whether Sunak has made great policy strides in his first 100 days, the jury seems to be out. Thompson says he has used the time as a period of consolidation.

“He has set out the five priorities and these may act as the springboard for a Conservative manifesto. But he has not been able to do much to address some of the deep issues currently affecting the UK. People's wallets remain squeezed and the extent of industrial action is a reflection of a building unhappiness with the status quo.”

How have Sunak’s first 100 days been reported elsewhere?

The Times reports on new polling, conducted to mark his 100 days in office, some of which won’t make happy reading for Sunak.

Writing in today’s FT, columnist Stephen Bush also focuses on the 100 days, suggesting his statement about putting integrity and accountability at the heart of his government was “making promises about things he couldn’t control”.

To mark his own 100 days in office, Sunak has written an op-ed in the Sun, laying out his five key pledges and highlighting policy initiatives to support them.

Elsewhere The Evening Standard and The Yorkshire Post take the view that while Sunak has restored order to financial markets his first 100 days have been “anything but calm”.