8 January 2023

Weekly Briefing: Out with the bold, in with the ‘new’


Out with the bold, in with the ‘new’

If you’d been missing big political speeches over the Christmas break, the first week of 2023 offered two for the price of one as Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer both set out a sweeping vision for Britain’s future.

I say ‘a’ vision because, as our editor-in-chief notes today, the two speeches were remarkably similar, right down to the same east London location. Both men looked to the sunlit uplands, majoring on ‘change’, a ‘better future’, doing things in a new, different, dynamic way and other such inarguably good stuff. You could quite easily have swapped sections from one speech to the other without raising any eyebrows.

That’s partly because Sunak’s speech in particular was not just unideological, but largely apolitical. The words ‘Tory’ and ‘Conservative’ were entirely absent and the only mention of ‘labour’ was in a section about the number of people who have left the workforce in the last few years. Then again, given the state of the opinion polls, perhaps Sunak could be forgiven for avoiding party politics.

The other striking thing about the PM’s speech was that despite all the talk of ‘change’ (a word he used over 20 times), there wasn’t much in the way of new ideas. The five pledges he set out – halving inflation, getting growth up, cutting debt, sorting NHS backlog and stopping the small boats – were really a codification of existing commitments and policies.

The promise to halve inflation was less a policy move than the PM getting ready to take credit when prices eventually start falling. If and when they do it won’t really be thanks to his government, any more than he was responsible for the surging global cost of gas and oil in the first place.

The lack of policy novelty also reflects a broader challenge: Sunak is stuck between the rhetoric of facing forwards, offering long-term thinking and building foundations for the future, and the day-to-day reality of strikes, inflation and NHS chaos. Being PM always means spinning endless plates, but at the moment it feels like Sunak is having to juggle them, while riding a unicycle…on a tightrope. And even if he wanted to bring forward radical new legislation, he has precious little parliamentary time to do so.

In the meantime, the public are crying out not for big visions, so much as a dose of what used to be normality: trains that run on time; police who respond to crime promptly; ambulances that will pick you up within minutes, not hours; and some stability in the price of the weekly shop. Some of those problems are in the Government’s gift to fix – hence a new slug of money to get patients out of hospital more quickly – others will depend on factors he can’t really influence, such as the war in Ukraine and how a new wave of Covid affects China’s economy.

All of which is a salutary reminder that for all their worthy efforts, our politicians are fated to bob along on the tides of history, forever buffeted by global factors beyond their control.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.