Where now? The two New Year’s messages from Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer last week tell us where the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition want British politics to be going in 2023. They don’t tell us where it will be going.
In each case, what the leaders said was as much the subtext as the text. For Sunak, his vaguely Blairish five pledges and his super-serious demeanour were really saying: I’m not that uncontrolled maniac Boris Johnson, or that lunatic Liz Truss. You can trust me, geeky maths guy, to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
For Starmer, in emphasising fiscal responsibility and political reform, subtext was, again, the abolition of the recent past: I’m not that lunatic Jeremy Corbyn. I’m centrist and yet I’m not a normal Westminster figure.
But by 2024, not being Bozza and not being Jezza won’t be enough. Voters will be thinking about their own futures, not looking back at the vivid rumpled chaos vanishing in their wing mirrors. Most will ask a simple, self-centred question: which party will make me feel more secure and prosperous in the years ahead?
Sunak’s five-point plan is essentially an emergency plumber’s hastily pencilled repair estimate: halve inflation (which the world economy should do for him); reduce the debt and grow the economy (already planned – but by how much and by when?); cut waiting lists in the NHS (same applies); and end the small-boats crisis. He promised that there would be no tricks, no ambiguity.
In fact his shortage of numbers and deadlines unambiguously suggest ambiguity. But there is a larger problem: what’s it all for?
If the Prime Minister’s main aim after 13 years of Conservative government is to start to reglue Humpty, that’s merely repair. What about his ambitions? Where does he want to take us? Does he know?
Rishi Sunak is a decent, highly intelligent, quite hard-line Thatcherite Conservative and a Brexiteer. His intellectual background would suggest he would be happy to see parts of the NHS privatised, to radically – and I mean radically – curb trade union rights and be very tough on welfare. A more “Singaporean” economic policy is where you would expect him to be going. But his whole pitch to the country has been gentler – more “family guy Hindu” than this.
So, what’s the answer? His supporters argue that he was naturally a hands-on, details man, never a visionary. But this is too easy. Political leadership always requires a glimpse of the different country you want to end up in – those sunlit uplands and their basic geography.
Maybe Sunak doesn’t have this glimpse, or not in words currently available to him. In that case, his enemies will come for him. By enemies I don’t mean his Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents. I mean his real enemies, the Johnson and Truss plotters in the Commons and Lords who despise him, want him out and would use bad local election results this May as a reason to rebel against a leader they (ludicrously) describe as socialist.
Boris Johnson’s politics have always been incoherent – a small-state big-spender, a natural liberal happily leading reactionary culture wars – but he was also always able to paint a picture, to make a crowd surge with the rich blood of optimism. So, if he comes for Sunak, it will be the Prime Minister’s lack of vision that provides his core argument. Laura Kuenssberg’s expression of irritated confusion and dismay as she interviewed Sunak last weekend about what he believed will be, in a way, Johnson’s template.
We should just mention that a Johnson rebellion would be, almost certainly, suicidal for the Tories. Right-wing papers periodically refer to him as the “king across the water”. This is an accurate Jacobite metaphor, since neither Bonnie Prince Charlie nor his wretched father achieved anything beyond the slaughter of their naïve and conned supporters.
Today there’s a good half or more of the party – and it is the good half – that wouldn’t have Johnson back. He didn’t have a real majority when he resigned – which is why he did – and the same is true now. A putsch, attempted or successful, would result in a swift parliamentary collapse and general election at a time when the Tory party is once again seen as a self-obsessed frat house. Well, it’s a strategy I suppose.
[See also: Boris Johnson won’t save the Tories]
Meanwhile, Keir Starmer is routinely accused of having no vision, but this is wrong and it is – at last – becoming clearer. He sees himself as a political outsider, late to the Westminster game who doesn’t like or respect it very much and wants radical reform – a centre-left insurgent. On economics, he advocates an environmentalist version of the stakeholding long-termism familiar to readers of the Observer‘s Will Hutton and others. It’s no leftist revolution; but in the country’s current state of mind a patient, slow building-up of investment and higher-productivity jobs to support stable public services will probably do.
The big question for Starmer is the old one of growth, and therefore funding. Because he is determined to leave not an inch open on Brexit, he is committed to an economy closed to its biggest and nearest market… and yet somehow one will grow vigorously despite that. Even if he expects to inherit an economy in which inflation has been falling fast, and the final impact of the pandemic and the war are fading, it doesn’t quite make sense.
Again, his supporters argue that a wily political ruthlessness lies behind the Brexit calculation. They tell me that if he won a decent majority, he would simply open us up to the single market anyway.
I hope that isn’t what’s going on. Starmer got away with tearing up the pledges on which he fought the leadership election because the voters don’t care about opposition leadership elections. He wouldn’t get away with a U-turn on something as big as this. His reputation, and therefore his authority, wouldn’t recover. Voters would see it as broken faith on the scale of the Iraq War dossier.
So, after their New Year’s messages both leaders leave themselves with big and obvious gaps to plug in the months ahead. Sunak, highly vulnerable to attack from the right, must show us the Britain he wants once this current mess is cleared up. Starmer, who is more clearly in charge of his own party, has to explain his economic plan for giving Britain the growth that his social and environmental investment requires.
For March of this year, those big questions will be refracted through what is beginning to feel like the collapse of the NHS. Sunak’s reputation will hang on his ability to come to terms with the nurses, even more than success in decanting people from hospital, and bringing down the waiting list. Does he want to bring private health more into the British system, or does he want to defend the NHS? And in each case, why?
Starmer, with the shadow health secretary Wes Streeting at his side, must show that Labour is prepared to reform the NHS, not simply to provide ever-more funding for it. The idea for many-sided primary care hubs to replace traditional GP surgeries is an attractive one, though expensive to get going; but surely allowing self-referral to consultants will swiftly bury them in impossible caseloads?
I argued last week that during the (artificial) fresh start of a new year, we needed less vituperation, more optimism. Well, the two messages showed we have more serious political leaders than for years, trying to grapple with the national chaos. The final unknown for 2023 is whether, despite that, the political class manages to overturn the apple cart yet again. I guess my version of the old Chinese proverb remains; may you not live in easy times for political hacks.
[See also: In this time of conflict, I recall my late mother’s Christian wisdom and kindness]