The demands are many — ranging from pay increases for nurses and police officers to increased welfare benefits, higher pensions and more funding for free school meals — as 40-year-high inflation erodes families' buying power. And resources are limited, with Sunak facing a budget shortfall of up to 60 billion pounds ($71 billion) that he says will require both tax increases and spending cuts to close.
It comes amid a grim backdrop of slowing economic growth, rising borrowing costs and the lingering effects of a tax-cutting plan by former Prime Minister Liz Truss, which torpedoed the government's reputation for financial discipline. When Sunak took office three weeks ago, he promised to restore that credibility, pledging the government would pay its bills and start reducing debts built up over the past 15 years.
But some economists caution against moving too fast when rising food, energy and housing costs are set to wipe out the savings of a fifth of British households.
Consumer price inflation accelerated to 10.1% in September, driven by a 96% spike in natural gas costs, a 54% increase in electricity and a 14.6% jump in food prices, a pattern seen as inflation has risen worldwide.
Britain's “government should increase borrowing to support the hardest-hit households, explain what it is doing, and put in place a plan for reducing public-sector debt at a point in the future once the shock has dissipated,” the independent National Institute of Economic and Social Research said.
The financial challenges were magnified by Truss, who announced 105 billion pounds of tax cuts and spending increases without saying how she would pay for them. That raised fears of runaway public debt, sparking turmoil on financial markets, sinking the pound to a record low against the U.S. dollar and forcing Truss to resign after just six weeks in office.
But Britain's woes stretch back to the global financial crisis, a catastrophe from which it was just beginning to recover when COVID-19 and then Russia's war in Ukraine hit.
U.K. public debt ballooned to almost 83% of economic output in 2017 from less than 36% in 2007 as the government bailed out banks and struggled to bolster the economy. A decade of budget tightening had started to reduce the burden when the pandemic and war in Ukraine pushed debt to 98% of gross domestic product. That is the highest since 1963, when Britain was still recovering from World War II.
At the same time, austerity put increasing demands on a threadbare social safety net.
After a decade of wage increases that failed to keep pace with inflation, the cost-of-living crisis has forced some government employees to turn to food banks. Doctors, nurses, teachers, postal workers and railroad employees have either authorized or are considering strikes this winter.
And long waits for ambulances, cancer treatment and elective surgery are pressuring Sunak to prioritize the National Health Service over other programs.
Treasury chief Jeremy Hunt has refused to release details of the government’s plans before his speech Thursday to Parliament. But he's promised to help those most in need.
“We will introduce a plan that will see us through the very choppy waters that we’re in economically,” Hunt told the BBC. “But we’ll make sure that we protect the most vulnerable, and in particular deal with the single biggest worry for people on low incomes, which is the rising cost of their weekly shop and rising energy prices.”
But people want certainty, and among those struggling are Sureshan. His family moved to Bexhill on Sea from London in 2006 to open a convenience store. But the business closed when Sureshan's health deteriorated and his wife stopped working to become his primary caregiver.
Disability benefits provide the bulk of their income, but that's being eaten up by the rising cost of living.
The cost of electricity alone — which Sureshan needs to charge his wheelchair, power the electric hoist that gets him in and out of bed, and run the machine that helps him breathe at night — has spiked to 189 pounds a month from 99 pounds.
The situation has become desperate for many, said Louise Rubin, policy director for Scope UK, which provides support and advice to people with disabilities. The charity used to offer tips on energy efficiency. Now, it is inundated with calls from those living on one meal a day in cold, dark houses. There's nothing left to cut back on.
“Life costs more if you’re disabled,’’ she said. “It costs up to 600 pounds more a month because of the extra equipment that people need to buy and power up. And the government must provide targeted support to those who need that extra support through no fault of their own.”
The Sureshans say they're doing everything they can to cut costs.
They spend most of their time in the living room, where draft excluders seal in the warm air. They limit themselves to two, sometimes three, cups of tea a day, and use the oven sparingly, preparing big dishes that can be frozen for later use.
When grocery shopping, Sridevi goes store to store, comparing prices in hopes of saving a few pence.
Working outside the home is inconceivable, she says, because she would be too worried about her husband. Besides, they can’t afford to pay someone to take her place.
“I don’t want to lose him,’’ she says desperately, clasping her hands together.
Their apartment contains hints of happier times: their 2000 wedding picture — Sridevi in a bright purple sari, the 6-foot-2 Thirugnanam towering behind her — a school drawing made by their son, photos of him in every room.
But they have few luxuries.
Christmas, a holiday the Hindu couple adopted from Britain, is the latest casualty. They can’t afford to turn on the oven for hours to roast a turkey this year.
The Sureshans are convinced Sunak will help the most vulnerable. They are proud a Hindu, whose family worked hard to make their way in the U.K., is prime minister.
Despite their situation, Sridevi says she and her husband are lucky: They have each other and a son with a bright future studying biomedicine. He's offered to come home and help, but they say they refused because he's the future.
“At least he’s got a wife and a child,’’ Sridevi said of her husband. “I feel sad for those who have no one to look after them.’’