The slow descent to the general election has begun.
Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer have set out their competing visions in a bid to win voters’ trust about who is best placed to lead the country out of the current economic and public health crises.
With echoes of New Labour, the Prime Minister yesterday set out five key promises to: half inflation this year; grow the economy; ensure the national debt falls; ensure that NHS waiting lists fall and people get the care they need more quickly; and pass new laws to stop small boats crossing the channel.
In Starmer’s speech in East London this morning, he promised “a decade of national renewal” to fix the country after what he called “13 years of failure” and “sticking plaster politics”, promising a “Take Back Control Bill” in his first King’s Speech to deliver the constitutional and economic overhaul which Starmer commissioned Gordon Brown to draft.
The problem for Sunak is that the Conservatives have been in power now for 13 years. Part of his speech yesterday focused on the health service and economy, which he said weren’t working; something of an understatement given the impact of price rises, hospital waiting times, widespread industrial action and a shrinking economy, all of which happened under a Tory watch. His job is to convince voters that he is at once a continuity and a change candidate with enough blue water between him and the political and economic turbulence from the Johnson and Truss administrations to get the country back on track, offering, as he puts it, ‘peace of mind’.
Although each of the Sunak promises is nebulous without clear metrics to measure them, other than reducing inflation this year, the OBR and BoE are already predicting that falling inflation and small increases in growth are inevitable as we come out of recession. The medium-term measures in place to tackle waiting lists will eventually bear fruit while passing laws on small boats is far easier to do than materially reducing the number of refugees attempting to enter Britain across the Channel. By November 2024, Rishi Sunak will be able to point to each of his five promises and say that he has delivered and can offer certainty and a predictable future for the country – a fresh start from the calamitous Johnson years.
The challenge for Starmer is that he has yet to seal the deal with the voting public. The narrative being promulgated in print and broadcast media that Labour’s 20pt lead in the polls is soft and that a revived economy offers the Tories a route to winning power has the danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s why Starmer said today that he wouldn’t be getting his “big government chequebook out” to solve the country’s ills.
Labour is desperate to avoid fighting the election on grounds of the Tories’ choosing – on Brexit, economic competence and Jeremy Corbyn – and instead is trying to create a clear dividing line between them.
Starmer’s Take Back Control Bill is a means to do just that. As well as trolling the Vote Leave campaign, it taps directly into the drivers that saw Labour supporters vote for Brexit and switch to Boris Johnson. He is making the case that Britain is broken but that you can’t spend your way out of a crisis that has built up over 13 years. He is offering his vision of national renewal, driven by devolution of power to towns and cities, as an alternative to four more years of Conservatism whose policies have seen the largest fall in living standards on record. This should also appeal to voters in Scotland who are not clamouring for independence and could be wooed away from the SNP.
With the starting gun now fired, both parties will be guarding their policy ideas closely for fear that the other side will steal them. But the hard graft of manifesto writing is now underway. Labour has promised a number of national commissions over the coming year and the Conservatives are urgently seeking new ideas to revive their purpose and meet the vast scale of the problems confronting them. At this point, the parties are looking to business and civic society to help shape and define operational policies with short- and longer-term impacts. They are in listening mode and the time is right, particularly for businesses, to get on the front foot and share their ideas and insight.