Just three working days into the new year we have been treated to set piece speeches from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer on consecutive days. Both had similar objectives: seize control of the news agenda; establish their domestic policy priorities; and persuade the electorate they are the right choice to tackle the very significant challenges the UK now faces.
However, they were coming from two very different starting points. Sunak is rushing to catch up with events, having rapidly and unexpectedly secured the Premiership in the midst of a political and economic crisis which has quickly been succeeded by an NHS crisis. Starmer has been building towards this moment for the last three years and has a significant lead in the polls he is looking to protect.
So how did they do and what are the implications for businesses planning their political engagement in 2023?
Structure and delivery
The unorthodox nature of Rishi Sunak’s rise to power left him with the tricky task of trying to set out the defining principles that will guide his premiership while simultaneously acknowledging the short term priorities required to address the crisis in the NHS. He also tacked on a series of specific promises that he is aiming to deliver around the economy, the NHS and the small boats issue. This resulted in a speech that jumped across a number of different topics but lacked a core theme and clear narrative. His delivery of the speech itself was a little wooden but he performed relatively well in the extensive Q&A that followed.
Starmer’s core message was simple: Labour is a credible Government in waiting that will devolve power, working in partnership with local government and business to tackle the UK’s long term challenges. It was a relatively well crafted and delivered speech that served as an effective critique of ‘sticking plaster politics’ from the current government. Unlike Sunak, Starmer has had the benefit of three years to prepare for this moment and he was able to draw on a lot of principles and ideas that have already been previously set out.
The Prime Minister set out five ‘promises’ that will frame the Government’s immediate priorities in the coming months: halving inflation this year; grow the economy; falling national debt; falling NHS waiting lists; new laws to stop small boats carrying migrants across the channel. While some have noted that these are largely in line with what independent forecasters are already predicting, the promises on inflation and growth in particular risk being significant hostages to fortune given how little control Government has on external, often global, events that drive economic trends.
Beyond this, the headline pledge was for all students to study maths in some form until the age of 18, with the implementation details yet to follow. Other significant sections of the speech on innovation, law and order, education and the NHS all lacked any new policy announcements, though referenced measures detailed in last year’s Autumn Statement.
Starmer’s speech had a major focus on how Labour would take a different approach to running the country based on devolution of power and partnership working with local government and business. However, there was only one significant new policy announcement: a ‘Take Back Control’ Bill that would form the centerpiece of his administration’s first King’s Speech. The Bill will devolve powers over employment support, transport, energy, climate change, housing, culture, childcare provision and council finances with a further ‘right to request’ power for local communities also built in.
In addition, he nodded towards a series of ‘national missions’ to be published in the coming weeks that will frame Labour’s policy platform in more detail. Also of note, there was a very clear message that Labour won’t fall back on a ‘big Government cheque book’ approach in an effort to assert fiscal credibility.
Impact and implications for engagement
There was some criticism that Sunak did not focus more on the immediate challenges facing the NHS and the industrial relations issues that are crippling the UK’s rail system. However, the five promises he set out do provide a litmus test against which he can ask voters to judge him. If he can demonstrate progress in these areas in twelve months from now, then he can start to build narrative of delivery that serves as platform for an election campaign.
Ultimately, this speech underlined just how much the next election is starting to dictate the Government’s approach. Sunak set up a small number of simple, measurable goals and it is clear that anything that can’t be shown to contribute to meeting them between now and the election will be far less likely to receive time and attention from Government. There was also a reminder of his personal focus on innovation as a key to driving productivity and growth – companies that can demonstrate a positive story on innovation are more likely to have success attracting the attention of No 10.
The short term headlines that Starmer’s team would have hoped for have largely been torpedoed by the leaks from Prince Harry’s book. However, expect the ‘Take Back Control’ slogan to feature heavily as a core theme in Labour’s narrative this year as they seek to demonstrate to the electorate that they have taken the lessons of Brexit on board. While this was a speech that demonstrates progress in his mission to become a credible Prime Minister in waiting, there is plenty of work still to do. Labour’s current comfortable poll lead comes on the back of a terrible few months for the Conservative Party and with the electorate facing extremely challenging economic circumstances. If the economy improves and Sunak is able to claim some credit, then Labour will need to show much more of a positive alternative agenda in order to maintain such a strong lead.
That places a lot of emphasis on the forthcoming ‘national missions’ to add further definition to Labour’s offer. Business should be prioritising its Opposition engagement on influencing how these missions are framed and the detailed policy ideas that will be needed to support them. Starmer boldly stated that he wanted to change the ‘old game of passionately identifying a problem’ without providing solutions. His biggest risk is falling into exactly this trap himself and his team will need the help and expertise from business to avoid it if he wants to build a truly robust alternative programme for Government.