Ahead of Rishi Sunak’s first event on LinkedIn, the British prime minister invited members of the public to submit questions that he would answer live. “Is there anything you’ve ever wanted to ask me? Well, now’s your chance,” Sunak wrote in a post under the livestream, which took place at 8.30am local time today (April 24). “One of my top priorities as Prime Minister is to grow the economy. And you—the British businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators and young people inventing the future—are at the heart of that. Click to join below and drop a question in the comments section—I’ll try get through as many as I can.”
Ahead of the session, the chat filled with questions about the recent strikes by National Health Service (NHS) staff, teachers, rail workers, and others that have seen schools close, hospitals run with minimal staff, and trains come to a halt. Attendees also asked about the government’s rhetoric on immigration, big-budget spends like a controversial new high-speed train line, and the cost of living, which has spiraled dramatically upward in recent months.
But Sunak didn’t address those questions. Instead, during a 30-minute session with interlocutors who were clearly picked and briefed beforehand, he stuck closely to the messages the government wanted to communicate. So closely, in fact, that no one—not a single one of his interlocutors or the prime minister himself—ever brought up strikes, the NHS, or inflation.
“Today, we’re focussing specifically on growth, and what we can do to support British businesses,” Sunak said in his introduction. There followed a series of extremely friendly questions, some from recognisable business leaders like Emma Walmsley, CEO of the drug giant GSK, and some from entrepreneurs and students. The chosen questions had one thing in common. They avoided taking the government to task about the problems that anyone engaged in daily UK life—including business people—is facing. Inflation, which soared to 10.4% in February 2023 and is still in double digits, wasn’t mentioned. Nor was the rising cost of living, which is also linked to high energy prices and, many argue, to Brexit. Strikes and healthcare were not mentioned either.
One restaurant owner from Northern Ireland did raise a touchy topic when she asked how Sunak could help her sector during the current impasse over a border with the European Union. Northern Ireland has not had a local executive for more than a year; the last head of government quit in February 2022 over the proposed border protocol. “What can you do, really, to help us in this sector of Northern Ireland while we have no functioning government?” she asked. Sunak replied with a comment about a recent freeze to business rates, and the hope that a political resolution would soon be found to “make sure everyone can have a bright future.”
Of course, with 13,000 people attending the event and a good measure of time-wasting comments—including individuals asking for jobs and warnings of alien invasions—some moderation was necessary. But as participants pointed out in the chat, the entire event came across as scripted. “What a pity that this great opportunity to get access to the PM is just being used for blatant propaganda with rehearsed answers and handpicked people to ask sanitised questions,” Christine A. Mackay, the co-founder and CEO of a UK animation studio, wrote in one comment.
Governments may be used to the one-way medium of television to get their messages across. But in an ‘ask-me-anything’ style online chat, the lack of engagement with the questions flooding in was the loudest message of the morning.