Rishi Sunak has defended his government’s decision to shut down schools because of problems with crumbling concrete, as he aims to use this weekend’s G20 summit in New Delhi to draw a line under another bruising week in office.
The prime minister told reporters on the trip to India that his education secretary, Gillian Keegan, had done the right thing in ordering 147 schools to shut buildings made with aerated concrete, after officials became concerned about structural defects.
Some in Whitehall have reportedly said Keegan has been overly cautious and has opened a “Pandora’s box” that could lead to swathes of public buildings having to be closed. Some close to Sunak are concerned that the issue could turn into another spiralling crisis that could drown out recent news pointing to the beginning of an economic recovery.
“[The Department for Education] have acted exactly correctly in response to new information that was relevant to them,” Sunak said. “We will ensure the safety of children and these buildings, and that’s why we put in place a very rapid process to do that.”
He said the example set by schools would not necessarily have to be followed by other types of public building, including prisons and hospitals. “Departments individually will follow that advice as it relates to their particular estate,” he said. “It is very specific to the circumstances of individual buildings and how in particular they can be monitored and assessed. For example, the NHS has been for years looking at this and has a mitigation programme in place which is funded with £700m already.”
Sunak hopes the schools issue will be sorted within weeks to give a boost to his beleaguered premiership. Polls show Labour has nearly a 20-point lead over the Conservatives, and several of the prime minister’s five priorities remain unfulfilled.
Sunak arrived in Delhi on Friday to be greeted by music and dancing, and was looking forward to a warmer reception than he often gets from British voters. As the UK’s first prime minister of Indian descent, he said he was looking forward to a “historic” trip where he would be greeted as “India’s son-in-law”.
Back at home, Sunak’s chief of staff has reportedly said any adviser who thinks the party cannot win the next election should quit. Meanwhile, Sunak has shaken up his Downing Street operation, naming Nerissa Chesterfield as his new head of communications and bringing in the former Conservative aides Jamie Njoku-Goodwin and Adam Atashzai to help try to regain control of the political narrative.
Sunak said the hires had helped inject new energy into his operation. “I can tell you, certainly in Downing Street, we are fired up,” he said. “As you can see, we’ve brought some new people in … these are very high-quality people that are joining the team because they believe that we will win. They are hungry to win, I am hungry to win, and they are fired up to deliver it.”
His words echo those made by former party leaders in similar situations. In 2015, facing accusations that he was not motivated enough to win the next election, David Cameron told an audience that he was “pumped up” by the small business revolution happening in the UK.
During that same campaign, Ed Miliband, the then Labour leader, was questioned over whether he was tough enough to become prime minister, to which he responded: “Hell, yes, I’m tough enough.”
Downing Street hopes that a combination of a positive trip to Delhi, an end to the concrete crisis and a new sense of purpose in Downing Street will help reset his premiership less than a year after it began.
Sunak said: “We’ve got plenty of time between now and the next election. I’m not complacent, there’s lots of work to do, but I’m entirely confident we can deliver for people.”
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