© Bill McConkey

Starmer’s Sunak problem

The Labour leader is still on course to win the next election, but his opponent is racking up achievements and hopes to beat him at his own game
April 5, 2023

Assessments of prime ministers underplay luck and context. A realistic view of their strengths and weaknesses is nearly always dependent on the circumstances in which they were trying to lead. Had Margaret Thatcher faced a united ­centre-left, and had the Argentinians left the Falklands alone, then her refusal to brook dissent might instead have been seen as the reason for her failure rather than triumph. Had Tony Blair taken over with an economy on the slide, rather than one experiencing healthy growth, his domestic reforms might never have got off the ground. Conversely, perhaps Gordon Brown’s and Theresa May’s tendencies to micromanage would have been seen as strong leadership had they had clear runs, rather than seeing their premierships overturned by the financial crisis and Brexit infighting.

The size of majority is the most critical context. That is what grants power over parliament and authority over cabinet. The best-known post-war prime ministers—Attlee, Macmillan, Wilson, Thatcher and Blair—are the ones who won the biggest election victories.

This is what makes Boris Johnson such an outlier, and a candidate for the title of worst PM of all time. He had the big majority. He had an opposition party in disarray. Yes, he had a crisis in the form of the pandemic, but his policy approach was largely supported by the public and the vaccine rollout was seen as a triumph. Yet he lasted just three years, failing to achieve anything of substance domestically, with a Brexit deal even he now disowns as his only substantial legacy. I understand that a number of forthcoming books on the Johnson regime will reveal a level of dysfunctionality that even his fiercest critics will struggle to believe.

As a result of Johnson’s failure (and the calamitous Truss interlude), Rishi Sunak is a far more constrained prime minister. His party is fractured, he has no time to implement grand visions, and the media remain drawn to the distracting circus offered by his predecessors. He will likely lose next year’s election and be remembered as a “what if?” premier.

He has, though, shown glimpses of skill that, in different circumstances, could have been put to greater use. His Brexit deal over the Northern Ireland protocol, improvements in relations with France and a budget that set up some meaningful reforms on childcare have all contributed to a growing narrative that he is bringing some level of competence back to Number 10.

We shouldn’t get carried away here—Johnson and Truss could hardly have set a lower bar. The NHS is still in turmoil. Wages continue to fall in real terms. The new illegal immigration bill is a travesty. But good governance is relative and to the starving, a slice of bread looks like a feast.

This competence narrative is helped by Sunak’s vibe. He is not a great speaker and can come across as gauche, especially when he tries to pretend to be normal rather than exceptionally wealthy. But he has a technocratic manner, he’s clearly on top of the detail and he works hard. His personal ratings are hardly stellar but, having dipped a couple of months back, are improving. They are currently much better than Johnson’s and the collective Conservative party’s, and not far off Keir Starmer’s.

This puts Labour in a tricky position. Its strategy against Johnson was to have Starmer play a sober, serious alternative to an out-of-control demagogue. The party has spent the past few years shutting down dividing lines on things like public spending, Brexit and immigration. But that has left it with little ideological differentiation and heavily reliant on competence being its trump card. In reality a Labour government would look very different to a Tory one, but that’s not what voters are being told.

Now unable to use its previous attack lines about chaotic government, Labour has instead tried to paint Sunak as weak and in hock to his unpopular party. But the prime minister has seen off any realistic chance of a Johnson comeback, and there is no one else who could feasibly challenge him pre-election. So while he is spending a lot of time on party management, he has given himself the freedom to pursue, for instance, closer relations with Europe.

There are plenty of things that could still blow Sunak up—further economic pain, the likely failure of his “small boats” plan, another NHS winter crisis. And Labour should still win. But we could now see a battle between two very similar offers, with two very similar leaders, except by 2024 one will have a track record and a friendly media to amplify it. The few policies Labour was lining up as big pledges are being nicked, as we saw with childcare. The big question is whether Starmer is capable of a different approach. If he wants to be one of those successful prime ministers—one with a big majority and room for manoeuvre—he needs to try.