The campaign for the next general election has begun. This is the year that the two main parties will define their key ideas through press conferences and media briefings. In the past 24 hours both the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition have made speeches, only 40 metres apart from each other in east London. General elections are still essentially a choice between two alternatives – and you can’t understand Keir Starmer’s speech today (5 January) without comparing it to Rishi Sunak’s yesterday.
First, Sunak was forced to make the normal duties of government appear like a radical programme. His five promises to halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut NHS waiting times and pass new laws to stop migrants crossing the Channel amounted only to managing crises. Summarising them in a five-point list helps to communicate to voters that he is focused on the problems facing the country, but a broader mission for his government eluded him (beyond requiring children to study maths until the age of 18). In many ways, the PM had little choice. Hamstrung by his rebellious backbenchers, he is unable to get anything substantial through parliament. And the crises – in the economy, the NHS and the Channel – correspond with what the public wants the government to address.
But the failure (or inability) to outline a positive vision left a lot of room today for Starmer to attack the government’s short-termism and lay claim to key Tory selling points such as fiscal responsibility. Nowhere was this strategy more apparent than the issue of Brexit. The debate around Brexit over the past year or so has revolved around problems with the Northern Ireland Protocol: the technical challenges that make it so difficult for UK businesses to trade with the EU and the wider economic consequences of that. Labour has been criticised for not talking about Brexit when the economic damage is becoming so visible, but a dry debate over technical standards is unlikely to excite supporters, and besides, telling people they voted to make themselves poorer doesn’t win elections. That’s why it made sense for Starmer to bow his head and simply atone for shifting his party towards supporting another referendum when he was shadow Brexit secretary.
Or so it seemed. Now, the strategy is shifting. Beginning with his conference speech in September the Labour leader has sought to gradually reopen the issue of Brexit. In that speech, he said: “What I heard across the country [in 2016] was people who thought we’d got our priorities wrong. Who wanted democratic control over their lives.”
He expanded on that point today: “It’s not unreasonable for us to recognise the desire for communities to stand on their own feet. It’s what ‘Take Back Control’ meant. The control people want is control over their lives and their community.”
While the Conservatives are holed up in Westminster agonising over how to resolve the trade dispute with the EU, Labour has nicked Boris Johnson and the eurosceptics’ “take back control” message and run with it. How the tables turn. Starmer has promised a Take Back Control Bill in the first year of a Labour government, which would essentially create the groundwork for the devolution plans the party announced last month. That’s savvy marketing for what might otherwise have been a dry package of constitutional reforms. Liz Truss isn’t the only Remainer who can speak Brexit.
We are only five days into the new year and both leaders’ speeches reflected that. Sunak said he would set out more detail in the coming months. Starmer said Labour would announce its “national missions”, which will form the basis of its next election manifesto, in the coming weeks. It seems likely that plans on childcare, the NHS and clean energy by 2030 will be on the list.
The growing risk for Sunak is that he ends up looking reactive, short-term and pessimistic, while Starmer has the freedom – and discipline within his party – to set out a positive vision. And optimism is powerful in politics. Sunak should ask his former boss.