The summer’s no holiday for Sunak and Starmer

Director and Head of Public Affairs Adam Thomas reflects on what faces the party leaders as they head off on summer holidays.

With Parliament now in recess, party leaders Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer will be preparing for a summer of reflection and planning. They are both aware that they are already firmly in the long campaign for the general election, which must be called within the next 18 months. While Sunak will be grappling with the need to demonstrate progress on all five of his publicised pledges, Starmer may be wondering whether failure to win in Uxbridge & South Ruislip, as Labour had hoped to, was a symptom of a deeper problem.

Party conference season will arrive swiftly in the autumn, so to hit the ground running there are likely to be advance reshuffles in both the Government and the Shadow Cabinet to allow the parties to present refreshed line-ups in Manchester and Liverpool. Sunak will have to do without Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who is stepping down having been well-liked in the party for years, while Starmer will need to consider whether his team aligns with the departmental changes. More importantly Starmer’s reshuffle will signal the final team he takes into the election and the likely structure of a Labour Cabinet should he win.

As the election looms closer, nerves in both parties can fray about policies that are important internally but might not chime with the right voting groups to clinch a majority. The theme of how pragmatic to be in the name of fiscal discipline is a party tightrope for Labour. Recent discomfort over keeping the Conservatives’ child benefit cap, introduced by George Osborne, exposed some fault lines. Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar committed to changing Starmer’s mind about it and it made many Shadow Cabinet members uncomfortable. Publicly rethinking the Party’s previously announced £28bn green investment plan is also intended to demonstrate its fiscal discipline and reassure the public and big business about costed spending. The recent public appearance of Starmer alongside Tony Blair at the Future of Britain conference may have been a demonstration of Starmer’s aspiration and determination to replicate New Labour success – and create yet more distance from his immediate, electorally unsuccessful, predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.

Given the need for the Conservatives to catch up to Labour in the polls, Sunak has his own policy dilemmas as he strives for greater electoral popularity. Two policy tensions flared up this month that illustrated not only growing pressure to concentrate on voter sentiment, but also the scale of improvement needed to benefit the party politically.

Although, as Lisa Nandy is fond of pointing out, housebuilding in England is set to fall to its lowest level since the Second World War, Michael Gove’s announcement of denser urban building was unpopular with many Conservative MPs. Not only is housing a headache in terms of discipline on the party line, but current proposed solutions are unlikely to shift the dial fast enough to impress voters.

 Then there is net zero. Sunak hinted at a potential slight back-track by saying that net zero policy must be “proportionate and pragmatic”. This opened up discussion of what could be modified as he mulls voter sentiment, the cost of living, what helps the economy, and any potential lessons to learn from the ULEZ punishment Labour received in Uxbridge.

Both leaders want to present a defined path to electoral victory at their upcoming Party Conferences. They know they have big shoes to fill – Boris Johnson and Tony Blair managed to get their parties energised and unified and both achieved considerable electoral success. Sunak and Starmer need to convince their party members that they too have the right winning formula, before turning to the bigger matter of convincing the country.

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