Bullet point by bullet point, 2023 kicked off with Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer swearing their respective oaths at the altar of pragmatism. Trust them and the economy would grow, NHS waiting lists would shorten and the small boats would stop. It was the prime minister’s emphasis on the latter that drove the greatest wedge between our technocrats-in-chief — otherwise political observers heralded the return of politics by agreed dullness: near total convergence on matters managerial.
But at the end of Q1 of 2023, the political trajectory appears to have panned out rather differently. The prime minister’s policy blitz on issues from small boats to Brexit and LOTO’s pivot against his predecessor suggest that when it comes to the pursuit of power, our leaders seem to be rather much more brutal than boring. It is fact that says a great deal about the mutually evolving characters of “Starmerism” and “Sunakism”.
Last week, Labour’s National Executive Committee met to vote on Sir Keir’s motion to block Jeremy Corbyn from running to be a Labour MP at the next election on the grounds that the party’s “electoral prospects” would be “significantly diminished” if he was endorsed. It marked the culmination of a years-long struggle between the Labour leader and his predecessor — Starmer’s decision to suspend Corbyn from the parliamentary party over his reaction to the ECHR report on anti-Semitism had been one of the first acts of his premiership. Now, the process was complete: the left of his party is left rudderless and isolated. The decapitation will see fellow Labour left MPs forced to side with Sir Keir against an independent run by Corbyn in Islington North lest they bring on their own expulsion. It looks like total victory on Sir Keir’s terms.
If the Labour leader’s ruthless streak spans years, therefore, then the prime minister’s recent pivot has been learned and earned over the course of 2023. Indeed, back in January, Sunak was still struggling to come to terms with the legacy of lax standards instituted by his predecessor-but-one. For sure, he had shown steeliness by promising “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level” in government, but the relentless focus on inquiries, probes and investigation on Nadhim Zahawi and Dominic Raab saw him castigated as “weak”. The implication was that while Sir Keir had shown strength in standing up the perceived misgivings of his ancien régime, the PM was still in hock to the Conservative sleaze machine. After U-turns on onshore wind and the online safety bill, Sunak looked squeezed by the pressures imposed by his party’s permacrisis.
But the weekly weak-off at PMQs is not what it once was with the PM increasingly perceived to have triumphed over his awkward squad activists. His drip-drip of political victories began with his decision to invoke Section 35 of the Scotland Act and block Holyrood’s gender recognition reform bill. It won plaudits within his own party and may have even hastened Nicola Sturgeon’s political decline. Crucially, it showed that in crunch moments, the PM was willing to be ruthless.
Then by breaking the protracted impasse over the Northern Ireland protocol, the prime minister was presented with the opportunity to stare down his party’s recalcitrant Brexiteers. He succeeded. His gamble in bringing hardcore Eurosceptics like Steve Baker, Chris Heaton-Harris and Suella Braverman into the cabinet had isolated ERG adversaries. There was no Brexit rebellion of yore, rather the Windsor Framework vote — passed 515-29 — highlighted his strength within the parliamentary party. Equally, that Liz Truss and Boris Johnson had trialled and failed to stoke Brexit ferment underlined their relative weakness.
The prime minister’s ruthlessness is arguably most evident on economic policy. It is well-known that the PM takes fiscal stolidity seriously, and there was little doubt of any U-turns of tax rises in the lead up to the Spring Budget in March. Sunak knows competence is king in politics right now — and just as he speaks of a fiscal plan, he will stick rigidly to it.
Still, Conservative tanks ruthlessly rolled onto Labour’s lawn on childcare and energy support policy. Far from banal bipartisanship, this was a deeply adversarial budget, one which sought to openly plunder Sir Keir’s policy laboratory. Moreover, the surprise announcement of the Lifetime Pension Allowance showed the PM was willing to get ideological given the right circumstances.
Then followed the new small boats policy. On this, the admission that there was a “more than 50 per cent chance” that the provisions of the new illegal migration bill would be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was deeply revealing. Critics will say the machismo is misplaced and the expectation-creation electorally costly, but the rhetoric will feed the sense that this is an uncompromising Conservative government pursuing victories on its own terms. The prime minister is walking boldly into the fire, enlarging his political target significantly and leaving himself wide open for hostile amendment. While there may be some faction-flattering to come, both for moderates led by Tim Loughton and the party right in Jonathan Gullis and Danny Kruger, inter-party attacks that Sunak is somehow “soft” will be entirely neutralised.
Critically, Sir Keir and the prime minister’s mutual ruthlessness speak to a new departure in British politics. Say what you like about Boris Johnson — but cold-blooded he was not. Keen to rise above the politically-costing give-and-take of Conservative factional politics, Johnson never saw a spending commitment he didn’t like, a tax break he didn’t push or a project he would not patronise. Johnsonianism was a pandering creed, where cakes were had and duly eaten. He lent on the ruthlessness of advisers, allowing his ideological flexibility to confuse potential rebels.
Nor could Jeremy Corbyn, Sir Keir’s predecessor, be described as especially ruthless. He vacillated on Brexit between remain and leave and the isolation of the party right under his tenure was in some senses self-imposed. Indeed, for all the talk of a Soviet-style purge of the party right, his iron fist now appears rather wooden when compared to Sir Keir’s.
There is also a mutually reinforcing quality to Sunak and Starmer’s ruthlessness. The political incentive to be tough in and around one’s party — or to defy the “Brexit purity cult” as Sir Keir put it on a Protocol resolution — is remarkably high. Both leaders want to be seen as competent and exacting, taking control over their respective machines. Indeed, Starmer’s repeated references to Sunak’s “weakness” at PMQs shows that cold-bloodedness is itself emerging as a political hot topic. Equally, the prime minister’s frequent jibe that Starmer was a member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet might have hastened the NEC ruling last week.
So where next in Starmer and Sunak’s ruthlessness race? The political trajectory points now to a heightening of their reciprocal tyrannies; the challenge now will be to maintain their positioning when it’s placed under strain. For Starmer, this could be a Corbyn run in Islington North and, for Sunak, a by-election in Uxbridge brought about by the verdict of the privileges committee.
But in the meantime, it is clear that both Sir Keir and the PM believe that the best way to exorcise the scourges of “long Corbyn” and “long Boris” is to be increasingly unsparing. Haunted by past missteps, they calculate that their chances among the electorate will be improved by curating a strongman, uncompromising image.