Sunak national service plan faces questions

Better ratings: Sunak waves as he disembarks from his plane upon landing in Staffordshire. The British Prime Minister is digging his heels and a survey of 2,072 adults found that 25% viewed him favourably, up five percentage points from early May. — Reuters

LONDON: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s campaign promise to revive national service for young Britons came under immediate scrutiny over how the £2.5bil (US$3.2bil) plan would be funded and enforced.

While Sunak captured the front pages of British newspapers with his surprise call to compel 18-year-olds into military or community service, his home secretary, James Cleverly, acknowledged hours later that those who skip out won’t face criminal charges.

The admission raised questions about how the Conservatives will enforce the programme if they managed to overcome a significant poll gap and beat Labour in the general election on July 4.

“There’s going to be no criminal sanctions. No one’s going to jail over this,” Cleverly told Sky News on Sunday.

“We are going to compel people to do it,” he said, without elaborating on how.

Labour’s would-be chancellor of the exchequer, Rachel Reeves, meanwhile, dismissed the idea as a “desperate” move, arguing that the programme would come at the expense of disadvantaged communities originally targeted by the funds.

“It is just another example I’m afraid of a gimmick where the sums don’t add up,” Reeves told the BBC, without saying where the party stood on the idea of compulsory national service.

The national service gambit marked the latest move by Sunak to claw back support from the right-wing Reform UK party and demonstrate momentum in the polls ahead of the rare summer election.

Sunak had chosen the policy after internal polling showed that it could undermine the Reform vote, according to people familiar with his thinking.

The campaign has gotten off to a rocky start, with Sunak drenched in the rain during his election announcement and drowned out by a protester blaring former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s campaign anthem.

Many of Sunak’s cabinet members were in the dark on the plan until the final hours.

Some had been expecting an autumn election that would’ve allowed the economy more time to improve.

Sunak is hoping that, if he can’t beat Labour leader Keir Starmer, he can at least save the Conservatives from a historic wipeout, his allies have told Bloomberg.

The ruling party is losing support to Reform UK, founded by Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, which could help Labour run up its tally of seats in the first general election since 2019.

Labour maintained its 22-point lead over the Conservatives in the first survey conducted by the YouGov polling firm in the wake of Sunak’s announcement, with the opposition party getting 44% of support.

Some 22% said they supported the Tories, compared with 14% for Reform, in the poll released last Saturday.

Still, the survey of 2,072 adults found that 25% viewed the prime minister favourably, up five percentage points from earlier in May. That compares with 34% for Starmer.

The national service mandate would require 18-year-olds to choose between either a full-time placement in the armed forces or cyberdefense for one year, or volunteering in their community for the equivalent of one weekend per month for one year.

A Royal Commission would be created to help launch applications for a pilot programme in September 2025 and introduce the mandate via a new National Service Act by the end of the next Parliament.

“This is a great country but generations of young people have not had the opportunities or experience they deserve and there are forces trying to divide our society in this increasingly uncertain world,” Sunak said in a statement last Saturday.

The proposal would see the United Kingdom rejoin the ranks of countries that have similar mandatory national service programmes, including Israel, South Korea and Singapore. — Bloomberg

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