After one year in Downing Street, Rishi Sunak has failed to place the Conservative Party on an election-winning footing. Last week, he was pummelled by two enormous by-election defeats in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire. Polling shows the number of people who think he is competent on key policy issues has shrunk. He is weighed down by his party’s unpopularity and entrenched policy issues, from inflation to the Channel crossings. In response, he has sought to build a policy offering that looks beyond the next election, only to focus on issues that people do not prioritise. The Conservative Party conference – one of three platforms to reset his messaging, alongside the King’s Speech and the Autumn Statement – was a missed opportunity to offer a coherent vision of where a country under the Conservatives would be in five years’ time.
These troubles show little sign of abating even as attention remains on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The government’s response to the fighting there has yet again contrasted Sunak’s ability to act credibly on the world stage with his failure to do so at home. The pivot to calling for a “humanitarian pause” to allow aid deliveries shows the government’s alignment with the US and the EU, which have mooted similar proposals. This is the latest example of Sunak normalising the UK’s diplomatic relations following his predecessors’ less conventional approaches.
Labour has matched the government’s call. That decision reflects the leadership’s commitment to international and domestic consensus over foreign policy. Keir Starmer wants to tie himself as closely as possible to Joe Biden’s side. But there’s a more immediate problem the Labour leader will hope the policy will solve: the outrage within his party over what some see as insufficient concern for Palestinians. The row was prompted by comments Starmer made in an LBC interview that suggested Israel had a right to cut off power and water to Gaza. As Rachel reports:
“A senior Labour figure noted that the issue was ‘eliciting quiet disagreement from people you’d usually expect to back Starmer to the hilt’, singling out Jess Phillips, the shadow minister for domestic violence, who indicated her position by challenging Rishi Sunak to condemn Israel should it breach international law. At last week’s shadow cabinet meeting, Shabana Mahmood, the most senior Muslim Labour MP, Louise Haigh and Wes Streeting are said to have warned Starmer that the party risks losing Muslim voters if it appears callous.”
Shadow ministers critical of the leadership’s position will be mindful that Labour is on the threshold of power, something they would exclude themselves from if they joined the backbenches. Nonetheless, Starmer recognises that this is a challenge to his authority within the party. He is thus trying to appease it to prevent this becoming a spat the public will notice. At the same time, he does not want to deviate from the government’s position, lest he open up vulnerabilities over the party’s position on Israel inherited from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Starmer will want to shut this debate down as swiftly as possible – something he has not achieved yet.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.
[See also: The age of media anarchy must end]