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The Tories are struggling in the polls. Can Team Rishi turn things around before the next election? | Politics News

As Rishi Sunak prepares to launch his re-election pitch from the stage in Manchester this week, it’s worth remembering that this time last year, the now prime minister – and many of his supporters – were put out to pasture and didn’t even bother to turn up for the annual Tory jamboree.

Those who did looked on with widening eyes at the accelerating car crash of the Liz Truss premiership, as her mini-budget began to unravel in real time at party conference (remember the panicked decision to U-turn on cutting the top rate tax no sooner than conference kicked off), with her administration’s complete collapse coming less than three weeks later.

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Truss’ time as PM, one year on

It is a chapter of Conservative history that Rishi Sunak has sought to put right – spending his first year as PM trying to steady the ship and bring an air of competence and professionalism to government. There is no doubt that the tenor and tone of what could well be the final party conference before a general election will be a world away from the last.

But when it comes to the fundamentals, has that much changed? If you measure politics in its most brutal sense as victory at the ballot box, the answer is not much. The Conservatives were experiencing their worst polling since the last 1990s this time last year. Look at our Sky News poll tracker now, and you can see average support for the party is pretty much the same – about 26%. It’s barely shifted at all.

To make matters worse, Mr Sunak – who will look in his leader’s speech to the country to cast himself as the heir of Thatcher – goes to conference as the Conservative prime minister who is presiding over anything but a Thatcherite economy.

The tax burden is on course to rise by more in this Conservative parliament than during any other since the Second World War, according to analysis released by the Institute of Fiscal Studies on the eve of conference. It will rise from 33% of national income to 37% by next year. A record leap that sees families and businesses paying more than £100bn extra in tax by next year compared with the last election, it has left many Tory MPs in despair and angry at the Sunak approach to the economy.

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Taxes are rising to near historic highs

The Sunak message will be that, during the pandemic, he had to do things and spend public money in a way that didn’t come naturally to him. He will argue he is a Thatcherite in both his personal work ethic and philosophy – an instinctive tax cutter and small-state Conservative, but is doing the hard work now – growing the economy, halving inflation – to reap the rewards later.

But his detractors are quietly fulminating. As one put it to me this week: “This heir to Thatcher business, it’s concocted vacuous stuff he’s come up with – ‘she grew up in a small shop, I [Sunak] grew up in a pharmacy’. Why didn’t he do that last year in a leadership campaign?”

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Truss ‘tried to fatten and slaughter the pig’

And if the message is stick to the plan and reap the rewards, there are some who have missed the memo. Divisions will surface on “economy day” as Liz Truss, Dame Priti Patel and Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg appear at the Great British Growth rally on Monday.

“The tax burden is now a 70-year high. That is unsustainable. And the people that pay the taxes are hard pressed Brits around the country,” former home secretary Dame Priti Patel told GB News on Friday as she insisted taxes had to come down. “As Conservatives, we believe in lower taxes. As Conservatives, we believe being on the side of hard-working households and families. As Conservatives, we believe in hope and aspiration.”

Poor polling and anxiety over the tax burden make for a tricky backdrop. Team Rishi insist that they can turn it around in the coming months, and the contour of that plan is taking shape.

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‘Not right to impose costs on people’

On net zero, the PM is trying to drill dividing lines between the Conservatives and Labour over environmental policies. He will use conference to position himself on the side of the motorist as he looks to further mine the advantage he gained in the Uxbridge by-election over taxing polluting diesel cars.

The fanning of the immigration flames – with Home Secretary Suella Braverman threatening to withdraw from the ECHR last week – is helpful to a prime minister who is looking to win back lapsed 2019 Conservative voters and regroup on the right.

His team see a narrow path to victory with all pivots on economic recovery, coupled with the message “we’re back on track, don’t risk Labour” and winning back voters over core issues – environment, immigration – to narrow the polls (someone told me that 14% of lapsed Conservative 2019 voters have moved to Reform, get a chunk back and the gap begins to close).

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‘Being gay isn’t enough to claim asylum’

“I wouldn’t bet against us to turn it around in the coming months,” said one No 10 insider. “Rishi genuinely believes he can make it better for the country and get into the best possible position for an election next year. Seeing how politics has changed over the past one, two years, I wouldn’t bet against us being able to turn it around. We have got to be the party of change.”

But the huge problem for Mr Sunak is that voters seem to have tuned out. He has been in No 10 for a year, and still the polls are unchanged. This conference, likely the last before an election, is his final chance to capture attention and start to regain voters’ ears.

But he has a problem too with a party that is in despair. While No 10 were pleased that the net zero announcements didn’t spark at backlash from pro-green One Nation Conservatives, the right of the party is restive over economy and waiting for the prime minister to placate them on spending and tax cuts. One figure suggested to me this weekend that Mr Sunak might use the cancellation of the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2 as a way of finding room for manoeuvre when it comes to promises on tax.

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Labour: ‘We want HS2 to go ahead’

Closing the gap with Labour is the goal for now as speculation grows around whether it will be a May or October election. (If it’s May you can run it with the local elections and not risk a small boats summer crisis or a vote in the autumn after a local election wipeout – but the PM might just want to hold out.)

But away from the No 10 bunker, and even his most ardent backers think the best Mr Sunak can achieve is holding Labour back from an outright majority.

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As for some of his more seasoned MPs, they are resigned to what they see is their fate: “Instinctively, I don’t feel that we can win. This feels like a damage limitation project.”

Manchester will be the acid test as to whether Mr Sunak can shift the momentum.

Labour to turn fire on Rishi Sunak’s ‘failings’ over cost of living crisis in ad campaign blitz | Politics News

Labour will continue with its controversial attacks on Rishi Sunak by turning attention to government “failures” over the cost of living crisis.

The Labour leader has described the prime minister as the “chief architect of choices prioritising the wealthiest” as both parties gear up for the local elections next month.

In a letter to his shadow cabinet, Sir Keir Starmer said voters “must know that Rishi Sunak’s fingerprints are all over their struggling household budgets”.

In the memo, seen by Sky News, the Labour leader wrote: “With 24 days left until polling day we must continue to focus relentlessly on exposing the failures of 13 years of this divided and weak Conservative government and demonstrate how we would deliver for working people across the country.”

He added: “Rishi Sunak is the chief architect of choices prioritising the wealthiest and of the government’s failure to get a grip of the economy and get growth going.”

He accused Mr Sunak of “supplying the touchpaper for another Conservative government to blow up the economy” as chancellor and then continuing in No 10 to “make choices which loaded the costs on to working people”.

Sir Keir’s intervention comes after Labour came under fire for a series of adverts which critics have branded “gutter politics”.

The first ad, which was issued on Thursday, read: “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t.”

Labour Party Tweet on  Rishi Sunak's record on gun crime
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Labour Party Tweet on Rishi Sunak’s record on gun crime

It cited data from the Ministry of Justice showing that 4,500 adults convicted of sex acts on children avoided a prison sentence since the Conservatives came to power in 2010.

Despite the ensuing backlash that came from across the political spectrum, Labour issued a second tweet which accused Mr Sunak of being soft on gun grime and a third which suggested he didn’t think thieves should be punished.

Labour officials have been bullish over the weekend about the effectiveness of their ads, with briefings suggesting they would intensify their efforts despite the criticism.

One Labour source told Sky News: “It’s mission accomplished – we’ve dominated the news agenda and started a serious conversation about the Tories appalling record on crime.”

And in his letter to his top team, Sir Keir said the focus of their local election campaigning should move from crime to the cost of living.

Read more:
Labour takes inspiration from Australia with Sunak attack ads – but they need more to pull off a proper ousting
Labour tweets second attack ad against Rishi Sunak despite ‘gutter politics’ row

The Labour leader also reiterated directly to his colleagues that he “makes no apologies at all” for the ads despite the backlash.

In an article for the Daily Mail, Sir Keir said he “stand[s] by every word Labour has said on the subject, no matter how squeamish it might make some feel”.

Labour is hoping to reap the benefits of a depressed economy in the 4 May local elections in England, as the Tories continue to struggle in the polls.

However, a new voting intention poll by Redfield and Wilton Strategies showed that Labour is on 44%, a decrease of 1% since last week, while the Conservatives are on 30%, an increase of 2%.

It marks Labour’s narrowest lead over the Tories since Mr Sunak became prime minister in October.

On Tuesday Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves will highlight the party’s pledge to help more first-time buyers on to the housing ladder on a campaign visit to Brighton.

New analysis from the party shows that first-time buyers face a nearly £500 per month hike in mortgage bills in the wake of Liz Truss’s ill-fated mini-budget and interest rate rises.

The Conservatives have been contacted for comment.

People on mental health waiting lists cautioned not to turn to chatbots | Science & Tech News

People waiting months for mental health treatment have been cautioned against turning to chatbots as a quick alternative.

One in four patients are now waiting more than 90 days between their first and second appointments for NHS talking therapy treatment, according to analysis by charity Future Care Capital (FCC).

The free sessions, delivered by fully trained and accredited practitioners, are meant to support those who suffer from conditions like anxiety and depression.

But thousands of people are facing long delays, with demand for treatment having risen since the pandemic.

A recent survey by the FCC found 87% of people struggling with their mental health were now using apps to get help, with 31% leaning on such tools because they did not want to wait for face-to-face support.

Dr Lauren Evans, director of research and innovation at FCC, said such resources had a role to play but cautioned against the use of increasingly popular chatbots, which have been tipped as an alternative to search engines.

“Although chatbots have been used for a while to direct telephone enquiries or provide basic information, it is an entirely different endeavour to gauge not only what somebody is saying, but the way they are saying it and what that might entail,” she told Sky News.

Digital tools ‘must be tested to high standards’

Since the pandemic, Google has reported an increase in the number of searches related to mental health, notably depression and anxiety.

People are also turning to social media to find support. Research by Luna, an app designed to help teenagers with mental health struggles, suggests more than eight in 10 young people are using TikTok to diagnose their troubles.

According to the FCC’s survey, people are now more than twice as likely to find a digital mental health tool on social media than through their GP.

Chatbots specifically released to be digital therapists have also grown in popularity in recent years – examples include Woebot and Wysa, which are both highly rated on Apple and Google’s app stores.

But new language models like the successful ChatGPT from OpenAI are not designed for this purpose. Despite this, asking questions about mental health will still see it confidently deliver an answer – even if it’s wrong.

Dr Evans warned: “Any such technology needs to be subjected to rigorous testing with high standards – and it could prove to be revolutionary.

“But it should not be implemented in place of face-to-face treatment with a medical professional.”

Read more:
Google launches new AI chatbot
Microsoft upgrades Bing with ChatGPT features

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Will this chatbot replace humans?

‘People want the human touch’

UK charity Samaritans, which operates a free 24/7 helpline for people who are struggling, has also stressed the importance of human interaction when seeking mental health support.

Kay, a volunteer who signed up after receiving help during her own struggle with anxiety, told Sky News: “I don’t think chatbots would be entirely helpful, because you just don’t know what call you’re going to take.

“When people talk, they want the human touch, to feel they’re talking to a real person who can empathise.”

Read more:
10,000 calls a day – but they all start the same

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Patients of mental health units tell their story

Guide to digital mental health resources

In a bid to ensure those who do seek help online find an appropriate resource, the FCC has launched a new comprehensive guide that directs people towards trusted apps and platforms.

The digital mental health tools guide allows users to filter resource based on conditions like addiction, anxiety, stress, body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and self-esteem.

“Digital tools are not a substitute for in-person mental health treatment,” Dr Evans stressed, “but can be used in conjunction with professional support and may help people waiting between treatment sessions.”

Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK

Woman mauled to death in Surrey was ‘attacked by multiple dogs’ and screamed ‘turn back’ to passers-by, witness says | UK News

A woman mauled to death at a Surrey beauty spot was attacked by “multiple dogs” and screamed at passers-by to “turn back”, a witness has said.

Paramedics were unable to save the 28-year-old victim after she was attacked at Gravelly Hill, Caterham, on Thursday.

A second woman who received treatment for dog bites has since left hospital.

An eyewitness told Sky News she was riding on horseback with her friend when they saw the woman who was killed on the floor “being attacked by multiple dogs”.

Sue Dove said: “She screamed at us to turn back and with that, two of the loose dogs ran towards us and the horses… my horse spun round and bolted and I eventually fell.”

The witness said she had been left feeling “lots of different emotions”.

She added: “(I feel) sadness that a woman has lost her life, but frustrated people are able to walk so many dogs.

“This lady was clearly out of control for whatever reason, had fallen to the ground, being attacked.

“Because of those consequences and two of the dogs running towards us, my horse bolted and I fell from my horse, landing on my right side, on my ribs and hip.

“Fortunately, my horse eventually stopped and my friend was able to get to him. Otherwise, as flight animals, this could have been another horrific accident if he kept going.”

Police at Gravelly Hill in Caterham, Surrey, where a dog attacked members of the public

Area popular with dog walkers

Surrey Police detained a total of eight dogs and detectives are keeping their owners up to date with the investigation.

No arrests have been made.

Richard Bream, who runs the nearby Mardens Kennels, said he had never heard of a dog attack in the area before.

He said: “That particular area, View Point, is an area where professional dog walkers will turn up in their van and take the dogs out and walk them.

“I’ve always felt you see some of these dog walkers have five or six, and they shouldn’t be able to do that.”

A man at an address near the scene, who asked not to be named, said: “The dogs dispersed into different areas of the woods and the police helicopter was out looking for them.”

Police at Gravelly Hill in Caterham, Surrey, where a dog attacked members of the public

‘Tragic incident’

A woman walking a border collie in the area, who asked not to be named, said she was shocked by the incident.

“It’s a nice circular woodland walk and we’ve never had any issues before. It is so shocking, normal dogs surely wouldn’t do that,” she said.

A post-mortem examination will be conducted by the Surrey coroner.

Inspector Lyndsey Whatley speaks to the media outside Caterham Police Station, Surrey, after a dog attacked members of the public at Gravelly Hill
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Inspector Lyndsey Whatley spoke to reporters about the incident

In an update on Friday, Inspector Lyndsey Whatley, borough commander for Tandridge, said: “This is a tragic incident where a young woman has sadly lost her life and our thoughts are with her family and friends.

“I know that yesterday’s events will be of real concern to the local community and I would like to reassure residents that we are confident all the dogs involved are in the custody of police whilst we investigate the circumstances of what has happened.

“Officers will remain in the area of Gravelly Hill today whilst enquiries continue and if you have any information but have not yet spoken to police then please contact us.”

Is Rishi Sunak’s five-point plan enough to turn the tide for the Tories? | Politics News

A term coined by Franklin D Roosevelt, “the first 100 days” has taken on a symbolic significance for political leaders as a benchmark to measure the early successes of a president – or, in our case, a prime minister.

But for Rishi Sunak, it has taken 71 days for the new PM to even set out a serious domestic policy speech, finally on Wednesday laying down his five priorities for his time at Number 10.

And what he has come up with misses the mark when it comes to grasping the nettle of the crisis Britain is now in.

PM accused of being ‘detached from reality’ by nursing union – politics latest

For this is a prime minister facing the worst strikes since the 1980s, as nurses, rail workers, paramedics, postal workers, border staff and other public sector employees, all walk out over pay.

The NHS is, according to many health leaders, facing the worst crisis in its history.

The president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine estimates that 300 to 500 people a week are dying as a result of delays to emergency care – a figure challenged by NHS England.

People are struggling to see a GP and worrying about whether an ambulance will turn up in time if they have to dial 999.

And the rail network is crippled by rolling strikes.

Yet in his keynote speech, the prime minister had few answers to the issue of ending rail strikes or settling with nurses.

Instead, he set out a five-point plan on which the public should judge him – pledges to halve inflation, grow the economy, get national debt falling, cut NHS waiting lists and pass laws to stop small boat crossings

He told the public he was not going to be one of those politicians who “promise the earth and then fail to deliver” (in an apparent dig at his two predecessors) and would focus on what he identified were the people’s priorities – the high cost of living, NHS waiting times and illegal migration.

And he should be confident he can deliver, given that pretty much all of his five pledges are already in train.

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Sky’s political editor Beth Rigby asks the prime minister: ‘How are you different to your predecessors?’

His economic pledges – halving inflation, growing the economy, getting national debt falling – look very simple to meet given that these are targets economists expect to happen too.

Inflation is expected to halve from its 11% high this year, while some forecasters expect the economy to be growing by the end of 2023.

As for reducing public debt, the prime minister has set this out as a medium-term goal, so it’s already baked into his plans.

When it comes to cutting NHS lists – latest figures have those waiting for treatment in England at 7.2 million – NHS England has already set out a plan of reducing wait times over several years, with the prime minister repeating the promise to get waiting times falling without setting out fresh targets.

Under current plans, waits of longer than a year for elective care are to be eliminated by March 2025, while the ambition is that 95% of patients needing a diagnostic test receive it within six weeks by the same deadline.

If he sticks to this plan, Mr Sunak could claim success without the country necessarily feeling it.

And his final pledge, to pass laws to stop small boat crossings, has already been announced by the PM.

Last month, Mr Sunak promised new legislation to tackle small boat crossings as a record near 46,000 people crossing the channel on small boats in 2022.

His plan is to bring in new legislation that would bar anyone entering the UK illegally the right to remain in the UK.

So if the pledge is to pass laws to stop small boat crossings, he’ll deliver it.

But how effective the government will be in actually stopping the crossings or returning people to their countries of origins remains to be seen, given that many people will come from countries to which they cannot be returned. This could prove a pledge that is hardest to deliver.

Is it enough?

Mr Sunak ended his speech saying he’d only make promises on what he can deliver and will deliver on what he’s promised. And by that yardstick, he’ll probably be able to claim success.

But the reality of what the country is experiencing right now is far removed from his five-point plan.

And with the Conservatives still 20 points behind in the polls, the bigger question for this government and the Tory party is whether what Mr Sunak is offering is anywhere near enough to turn the tide.

More people turn to banking tools that block them from gambling amid cost of living crisis | UK News

More people have been turning to tools that block them from gambling amid the cost of living crisis.

Online bank Monzo revealed that it has seen 50,000 of its customers make use of its gambling block tool for the first time over the past six months.

This is a third more than the number of people who started using it in the previous six months.

The lender also blocked 20% more transactions than it did in the prior period, it said.

It added that half a million of its nearly seven million customers have used the gambling block since it launched in June 2018.

The optional tool helps people to curb a gambling addiction by blocking transactions to a betting company through their current account.

And amid growing cost pressures, rising inflation, and shrinking household budgets, it seems more people are turning to the tool.

Once switched on, customers can only deactivate the block by contacting the customer support team and then waiting 48 hours to disable it in the app. This is done to prevent people from acting compulsively.

Online gambling has moved at a dizzying pace into the online era – with casinos and betting shops replaced by smartphones and apps.

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Financial Crisis: Explained

Rise in harmful gambling

Charities have highlighted a rise in harmful gambling in line with cost of living pressures worsening in the UK.

GambleAware recently said it had serious concerns that people, particularly women, expect to gamble more in the coming months in an attempt to supplement their household income.

It also warned that December could see a “perfect storm” of the cost of living crisis, the run-up to Christmas, and the football World Cup pushing more people to resort to betting to cope.

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Other big banks have followed Monzo’s lead, with the likes of Lloyds Bank, NatWest and Chase introducing similar features on their mobile apps.

Last month, Lloyds Bank also introduced personalised gambling spend limits for its customers, which it said was the first of its kind for a UK high-street bank.

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Since the government announced plans to reform gambling laws in 2019, there have been constant delays to the white paper.

Warning of ‘human catastrophe’ as more turn to drink and drugs to ‘numb stress’ of cost of living | UK News

Charities are warning of a “human catastrophe” as more people turn to drugs and alcohol to “cope” with the cost of living crisis.

New research, commissioned by The Forward Trust, revealed 32% of people said either they, or someone close to them, had relapsed into substance use over the past eight months.

Overall 2.1 million said they had increased alcohol use, while 61% of those said stress over rising prices was the most significant trigger.

Tom, 57, has been in recovery from heroin use for the past eight years.

He began taking drugs when he was 16 and told Sky News that anxiety over how to afford food and heating has made him vulnerable to a relapse.

“My health is going downhill because I do get really stressed out,” Tom says.

“I couldn’t cope with things, and I just didn’t know how to escape it. That’s why I started the drug abuse.”

He adds: “If it weren’t for my dog and my friend, helping me to get out of my mood swings, I’d have been dead by now, through either drug abuse or overdose.”

New research, commissioned by The Forward Trust, shows

Sian Reed-Collins, a recovery worker at charity Turning Point, said it was “scary” for people in recovery who used substances to “numb” stress.

“Unfortunately, things like the cost of living crisis mean people are going to go back to substance use,” she told Sky News.

“It’s a way of coping with this – helping with their stress levels, helping with their anxiety. And it’s a scary time out there for people.”

Read more:
Princess of Wales tells addicts ‘recovery is possible’ in message of hope and support

Can the government’s drug strategy be tough on addiction as well as crime?

Last year, the government pledged nearly £800m in a landmark 10-year drug recovery strategy.

But with the autumn budget approaching and suggestions of economies to come, campaign groups are calling for that funding to be secure, as needs rise.

“This is a human catastrophe that we’re facing and people need help,” Matt Thomas, spokesperson for Forward Trust said.

“They need help urgently and they need help now because addiction is, at its worst, a killer condition.”