In their New Year speeches both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer made one thing clear: the race is on to a General Election.
Both leaders face the challenge that the public has little idea of who they are as individuals and what their vision is for the country.
For Sunak, this means setting himself apart from his predecessors and building much needed trust through stability. The Prime Minister’s aim, as reflected in his pledges, is to steady the nation’s finances to get the cost-of-living crisis under control.
He will be hoping to unveil a ‘true blue Conservative’ magic trick, to cut taxes in Spring 2024 — just before the general election — a year after his Budget for growth this March.
For Starmer, 2023 needs to be the year he convincingly sets out his vision of “hope”, balanced against the necessity for fiscally responsible policies that will differentiate Labour from the Conservatives. Starmer — like many others in politics — knows that there are only two real types of general election: a time for a change and better the devil you know. Convincing voters across the UK, including those that recently deserted the Labour Party, that the next general election is the former will be the priority for Starmer.
All is still to play for in the next 12 months. Both leaders have an uphill struggle ahead of them — and its only just begun.
Rishi Sunak and the Conservative Party
After 12 years of a Conservative government, Rishi Sunak is determined to distance himself from what has come before and set out a fresh offer to the country, in both style and substance. This is an unenviable task at a time when the public’s goodwill towards the party is dwindling.
By taking a ‘Johnsonian’ risk of organising a shot-gun speech this week, Sunak could well have unnerved Conservative MPs who are looking for a safe pair of hands and few surprises from their leader. When building MP support, Sunak will want to avoid any likelihood of a return of Boris Johnson, which could drive him out of power before the next election.
It seems, however, that for the time being, the mix of Sunak’s ‘project management’ style and playing back the key issues that his MPs know their constituents care about has won many over.
Only time will tell whether that will last until the local elections in May.
Any criticism levelled has been that Sunak’s intervention was either too cautious for the size of the challenge the country faces, or presented little new detail. On his commitment to halve inflation, critics have been keen to point out that, having blamed external factors for rising prices, he will be happy enough to take the credit once they fall.
Perhaps learning from others who have fallen into similar political traps, he also refused to set out targets for his fifth pledge to stop small boats which will be met with frustration by some. Sunak will want to taper this frustration, particularly as he will need to stave off threats from the right of British politics, such as Richard Tice and Nigel Farage, to avoid splitting facets of Conservative votes in the next election.
Building on the key differentiator of the recent Prime Ministers that have come before him, Sunak was more than happy to play up his ‘project manager’ credentials. Businesses will welcome any sense of stability this may bring, particularly in the context of the political volatility felt in 2022, but vague pledges to ‘grow the economy’ may be met with scepticism by business owners who will be critically aware of the forecasts for a recession.
Even still, when it comes to party politics, Sunak’s commitment to personally oversee the success and execution of these pledges runs the risk of creating tensions with Secretaries of State who have historically heavily resisted being micromanaged.
With the Conservatives 20 points behind in the polls, the public is yet to be convinced by what exactly Sunak stands for. Taking greater personal responsibility for the successes and failures of his party and the economy is a gamble that Sunak has felt necessary to convince the public that the Conservatives deserve another full term.
Keir Starmer and the Labour Party
Keir Starmer’s message for his major address built on a growing theme for the Labour leader: the Conservative Party have been in power for 12 years and now is the time for change.
The big challenge for Labour is presenting itself as a highly enthusiastic government-in-waiting with fresh ideas, alongside being realistic about the serious challenges they would face across the economy and public services. Starmer therefore has sought to align his party with fiscal responsibility and shred any public concern that Labour cannot be trusted with the public purse.
Those looking for a clear vision of a future Starmer government will be disappointed, with the Labour leader himself promising more detail in the future. The more studied Labour followers will however have heard ghosts of previous Labour leaders in Starmer’s speech. Ambition for public sector reform and support of the private sector was reminiscent of a latter-day Blair; a focus on green growth evoked memories of Milibandism; while the emphasis on economic restraint had hallmarks of Brown’s Chancellorship. Businesses could also note the case Starmer made for harmony between government, and the public and private sectors – which echoed back to Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’.
However, it is in the commitment for “growth from the grassroots” in which we see the beginnings of ‘Starmerism’. With the party leader looking away from Westminster to provide communities with a ‘chance to control their economic destiny’, an extension of the levelling up agenda that Labour has banked on transcending voter support.
Starmer will be hoping that that the promise to decentralise power across the UK will help Labour win back the huge numbers of Scottish voters he will need to land a majority, with polls suggesting he could need up to 24 Scottish Labour seats to do so.
Despite growing quiet confidence, Starmer knows he still has a job to do and faces a series of challenges: cut-through and public recognition of his top team remains an issue, his continued efforts to bring Labour to the centre risks further isolating those on the left of the party, and attempts to resonate with Red Wall voters, including by adopting Vote Leave’s ‘Take Back Control’ language is being met with scepticism.
He will likely therefore be keeping the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock and the ‘unlosable election’ of 1992 at the forefront of his mind as he takes each step towards the next general election.