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2 November 2022

Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak have more in common than they would like to admit

Both have cast themselves as the antidote to the chaotic leaderships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak have more in common than either man would care to admit.

They both cast themselves as the antidote to the chaotic leaderships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Each has vowed to bring integrity, honesty and accountability back to politics. Both are relatively new MPs, elected for the first time in 2015, and thus avoided years of tribal politics and the battle scars that would have come with them.

The two leaders, who are gearing up for their second PMQs clash at noon today (2 November), have diagnosed crumbling public services and a chronic lack of economic growth as the key issues facing Britain.

They have made a series of U-turns since taking office to signal a break with the past: Sunak on almost everything in the mini-Budget, and Starmer on free movement and blanket nationalisation of public services.

When Sunak became leader, his party was suffering a major crisis of credibility and Truss’s mini-Budget had created economic chaos. Starmer, too, was brought in to recover his party’s reputation in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn‘s colossal defeat in 2019.

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But by touting themselves as clean slates to the electorate, both have placed incredible pressure on their own standards.

It is why “beergate” presented a huge risk for a Labour leader nicknamed “Mr Rules”, and why Sunak’s allies are aghast that he would risk trashing his “new broom” brand by re-appointing Suella Braverman just days after the Home Secretary admitted breaching the ministerial code.

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There are obvious differences. Starmer’s career before politics was in public service, as head of the Crown Prosecution Service, whereas Sunak was an investment banker.

Each says they have unified their party, but only Starmer can plausibly claim this. The party’s pro-Corbyn left has been marginalised since the former leader had the whip removed.

Braverman’s role on the front bench is clear evidence Sunak remains a prisoner to his party’s factional battles. Forcing through tax rises could also prove divisive, given his reshuffle prized experience over giving next-generation MPs a shot.

And in the past 24 hours, Johnson, Sunak’s old foe, has made clear he prefers the role of (world) king over the water to being a quiet backbencher. He gathered around 60 of his supporters at his new office in Westminster last night, reportedly telling them he will “seek to protect his legacy” on Brexit, levelling up and the 2019 manifesto.

The former PM, who came close to challenging Sunak for the leadership, has also made a significant intervention on Ukraine, telling Sky News that Vladimir Putin “would be crazy” to use nuclear weapons. He also confirmed he is planning to attend Cop27 in Egypt in November – news Sunak no doubt dreaded given the question mark over his own attendance.

The next election will be won by whichever leader can voice a convincing vision for the future and, given the state of the economy, public sector reform. But divided parties rarely fare well at the ballot box and Sunak has yet to demonstrate he is in control.

[See also: PMQs: Sunak will need more than tired lines about Brexit and Corbyn to land a blow on Labour]

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