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Good morning. A good day for Rishi Sunak yesterday, but he still suffers internally from the lingering belief that his government is Labour-lite. As Robert Shrimsley sets out in his column this week, that is not quite true. Some thoughts on that below.
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The revolt that fizzled out
Yesterday was a good day for the prime minister: just 22 Conservative MPs voted against his Brexit deal in the House of Commons. It was, as expected, a thin alliance of people who dislike Sunak personally and a smattering of the most hardcore Brexiters. But in the end Boris Johnson, the rebellion’s de facto leader, failed to secure the support of all of Sunak’s bitterest foes or the party’s most doctrinaire Leavers.
Johnson’s biggest problem is himself. This week has reminded many Conservative MPs just how much they had come to hate the rolling circus by the end: the scandals, the constant reboots, the failures and the mess. Many MPs who are far from dyed-in-the-wool Sunakites are just happy to have a prime minister who is, well, normal.
The big story is that Sunak is the Conservative party’s best available candidate to lead it into the next election and will do so. But what is going to happen to Johnson? As Jim Pickard and Robert Wright reported on Tuesday, the MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip is unlikely to face a big enough sanction to force a by-election.
There are limited reasons that a British MP can be “recalled” by voters. The one that matters for our purposes is that the MP becomes eligible for a recall if they are suspended for more than 10 sitting days. The most likely outcome is that Johnson is suspended for less than that. Whatever happens with Johnson and Partygate, however, his biggest problem remains that he has made himself the candidate of only one section of the party’s right, and as long as that remains the case he has no hope of making a return to Downing Street.
Robert Shrimsley has written an excellent column this week, setting out how, for all people like to talk about a current consensus between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer’s methods, there is a big difference between their two parties’ programmes:
Campaign pressures may temporarily shade such differences but the parties’ political centres of gravity will pull them apart post-election. For all the current caution, most Labour MPs want higher taxes on the wealthy, partnership with unions, extra regulation and more funds for public services.
Sunak, in contrast, is temporarily holding the line against a party which wants retrenchment and tax cuts. In opposition, or even if they cling to power, the Tories will default to their small state instincts.
Once you examine Labour’s policies the gap is obvious. Its net zero programme, costing £28bn a year, is an industrial strategy under another guise and includes plans for the government to take stakes in new green industries. Broader and more costly than Tory policies, it is a big bet on the green agenda to drive economic reform.
There are two main reasons why many at Westminster have convinced themselves that there is not much to choose between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer’s platforms at the next election. (That belief has also stirred talk of “Heevesism”, an amalgam of the surnames of the chancellor Jeremy Hunt and his Labour shadow Rachel Reeves.)
The first, as Robert notes, is that it is in so many people’s interests to pretend that this is the case.
If you are Starmer, that message allows you to reassure nervous swing voters and to drive home your most unifying message, which is that the Conservative government looks incredibly tired and that the UK badly needs a change of government. If you are one of Starmer’s internal opponents, it enables you to scare Labour members by saying Starmer is Tory-lite and Blair-lite. If you are one of Rishi Sunak’s internal opponents, it lets you demonise Sunak and Hunt by talking up the excessive moderation of his government. Really the only person in politics it doesn’t work for is Sunak.
The other reason, and the grain of truth in the idea that we have entered an era of Heevesism, is that if the Conservatives do win the next election, their “failure mode” at the moment looks an awful lot like a pretty rubbish Labour government: gradual increases in public service spending but no plan to really improve outcomes beyond more cash, a bunch of stealth tax rises and a failed plan for growth.
Broadly speaking, most people in Westminster think if the Tories win the next election, the resulting government will be a disaster: the party won’t have the votes to deliver the very sharp and painful cuts as envisaged at the end of Hunt’s spending plans, even if Hunt himself wanted to. They also fear that rebellious MPs will be strong enough to block the government’s growth plans and political pressure will mean more increases in spending.
Of course, if Labour gets in and its growth plans don’t work, its failure mode will be pretty much the same. But it will also include a lot more. As Robert says:
Labour is committed to a raft of new employment rights and the repeal of the last two trade union acts, both designed to limit strike action. It wants major constitutional reform, significant new social housing and rail renationalisation as franchises expire.
Now, a failed Labour government is not going to successfully abolish the House of Lords or do much of note, as far as devolution is concerned. But a failed Labour government is still going to oversee some pretty big changes to the UK’s labour market and to its railways.
Of course, the success of the next government, whether it is led by Starmer or by Sunak, will be quite different. While it may be the case that if the next Conservative government does badly it will look a lot like a mediocre Labour government, it doesn’t mean that a Starmer failure will look like a Sunak one. Again, it will be quite different.
Now try this
I’m rereading Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which really is a brilliant, brilliant novel.
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