It is commonplace to observe that Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer share many characteristics. Both came to politics late after highly successful careers elsewhere. Both are natural technocrats – diligent, competent, intelligent – but not natural showmen or campaigners. Both are marked improvements on the candidates their respective parties offered the British public at the last general election.
The old adage runs that prime ministers can be divided by temperament into bookies or bishops and our two party leaders (notwithstanding that one is a Hindu and the other an atheist) are bishops. Neither has the risk-taking attributes of a bookie. Their instinctive caution, however, manifests itself in different ways.
Sunak inherited a party fractured by Brexit, Covid, the fall of Boris Johnson and the Truss premiership. He assumed the Tory leadership without a mandate from the party membership. (A hindrance even if it would be no bad thing if activists were excluded from choosing the prime minister.)
It is perhaps inevitable that he has trod carefully when dealing with his party. When confronted by a back-bench revolt over planning deregulation, he abandoned national housebuilding targets (causing problems that he is now belatedly trying to correct). He has, in fairness, resisted calls for unfunded tax cuts but has been less than blunt in pointing out that these calls have come from those who cheered Kwasi Kwarteng’s calamitous mini-Budget. When MPs voted in favour of the finding that Boris Johnson deliberately misled the House of Commons over partygate, Sunak was nowhere to be seen.
The high point of his premiership was the Windsor framework, which contrasted with Johnson’s slap-dash treatment of the Irish border problem. Sunak delivered a deal, faced down his critics on the right, and left them marginalised in the Commons. For a brief period, Conservative optimism returned.
Yet even on this issue, Sunak still acts tentatively. One of the advantages of the Windsor framework is that the UK now has the opportunity to rejoin Horizon Europe, enabling UK scientists to cooperate fully with their EU counterparts. But we still have not done so because we are haggling over our financial contribution. The scientific community desperately wants this resolved (“We should have joined it yesterday,” says Patrick Vallance, the government’s former chief scientific adviser) but not upsetting Eurosceptic Tory MPs matters more.
[See also: Does Rishi Sunak have any shame?]
The charge of political squeamishness cannot be laid at Starmer. For an apparently cautious man, he has been ruthless in marginalising the left. Jeremy Corbyn has been expelled from the party, while his supporters have been purged from the front bench and largely excluded from selection in competitive constituencies. When John McDonnell looks back with nostalgia on the days of Tony Blair (the former shadow chancellor was first elected in 1997), Starmer knows he must be doing something right.
His focus is not his party but the electorate. He argues, not unreasonably, that he needs a bigger swing than Blair achieved in 1997 to achieve a majority of one and that this necessitates relentless discipline. Labour may well have a 20-point poll lead and the Tories may appear exhausted but Labour usually loses; taking policy positions that may alienate target voters is an unaffordable self-indulgence.
On issue after issue, Starmer has sought to close down opportunities for a Conservative attack. On Brexit, he has sought to deny the Conservatives any evidence that Labour would reverse it. On fiscal policy, he has supported the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves in maintaining spending discipline. More recently, he has formally abandoned Labour’s past commitment to introduce self-ID for trans people.
The party’s by-election defeat in Uxbridge and South Ruislip on 20 July will have strengthened his resolve. The Tories may be unpopular – they lost a majority of 20,137 in Selby and Ainsty, and one of 19,213 in Somerton and Frome – but they still know how to run an effective attack campaign. And the voters responded.
The Ultra Low Emission Zone, a charge on the most polluting vehicles, may only apply to an estimated one in ten cars in Greater London but there is a wider issue. After the biggest fall in living standards since records began, the electorate will be alarmed by the prospect of an incoming Labour government imposing new costs on them. (Hence the party’s refusal to announce major direct tax rises.)
This is the context in which both parties have hinted that they may retreat from pledges designed to meet the target of net-zero emissions by 2050. Were this to happen, it would again be a consequence of two different types of caution. Sunak would be making a defensive move for fear of finding himself on the wrong side of the Conservative right; Starmer would be making a defensive move for fear of being on the wrong side of the electorate.
The public recognises the depth of Britain’s political and economic malaise but it doubts that our politicians have the capacity to remedy it. Sunak appears inhibited by his party despite his superior approval ratings, while Starmer risks appearing the prisoner of public opinion. Leaving no space between himself and voters may work well in opposition but it is a dubious governing strategy. Will he be too easily buffeted by events to maintain a consistent course? To prove the sceptics wrong, Keir Starmer must show that he can lead public opinion, not just follow it.
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special