Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

Week-in-Review: From Greek marbles to net zero, Sunak’s embrace of ‘wedge politics’ is taking a toll

Rishi Sunak is a man of many strategies. Some days our prime minister is an apolitical pledge-propounding champion of stability on a mission to exorcise any excitement from British politics with his delivery-oriented “five pledges”. On others, he is a status quo-smashing “change politician”, bearing down on 30 years of stagnant governance. 

Sometimes he likes to take “long-term decisions for a brighter future”, at others he turns his nose up at NATO allies at the eleventh hour if he suspects shallow “grandstanding”. He frequently flaunts his pro-Brexit credentials, unless he is vaulting the former remainer-in-chief to the post of foreign secretary. He extols his success in improving Britain’s standing on the world stage, but threatens to renege on international treaty commitments to enable his party’s Rwanda deportations plan. He grants licences to oil and gas firms and waters down net zero targets — cue £1.6 billion worth of funding for climate initiatives to soften the blow. 

I could go on. But, in short: our prime minister seems a political enigma — at once a tinkering technocrat and a ruthless ideologue, rolled up in a Camera-friendly, soft Cameroon outer shell.

Perhaps this reading is unfair. Sunak is so thinly spread across the political spectrum, in part, because he is pulled in divergent directions by the Conservatives’ competing electoral imperatives in Red and Blue Wall seats. Nor should we dismiss an apparent thematic consistency in the PM’s politics: because his embrace of “wedge politics” — from net zero to Greek marbles — still features centrally in his strategic playbook. 

What’s in a “wedge”? Well, informing Sunak’s approach here is the belief that Keir Starmer’s policy offering is thin — and that it is hence susceptible to testing and manipulation by tricky Tory messaging. By defining debates on his own terms, Sunak intends to put Labour on the wrong side of public opinion. And so he desperately goads Starmer, with little nuance but imperious intent, by weaponising wedge issues, consciously coarsening political debate and laying “traps”.

Now, let’s apply this framing to the Greek marbles furore which unfurled this week. Because whatever the immediate cause of Sunak’s decision to snub his Greek counterpart (perhaps in a fit of pique after Kyriakos Mitsotakis opted to meet the Labour leader first), the decision was subsequently spun as the PM acting authoritatively in Britain’s interest on a bitter cultural dispute. 

Indeed, at prime minister’s questions this week, Sunak attempted to contrast his firmness on the Parthenon marbles with Starmer’s deference and subservience to a European Union member. “No one will be surprised that he’s backing an EU country over Britain”, Sunak snapped back after Starmer pilloried his “small politics”. 

He continued: “Just this last week he was asked which song best sums up the Labour Party. What did he come up with? Well, Mr Speaker, he showed his true colours and chose Ode To Joy. Literally the anthem of the European Union. He will back Brussels over Britain every single time!”.

But Keir Starmer’s parries were effective — some of his best yet. Aside from his “small politics” jibe (a thinly-veiled reference to our 5ft 6 inch PM’s height), Starmer declared “It is ironic he’s suddenly taken such a keen interest in Greek culture. He’s clearly become the man with the reverse Midas touch”. 

Keir Starmer: Rishi Sunak has ‘become the man with the reverse Midas touch’

Sunak’s apparent embrace of the Elgin Marbles row is, of course, defective for several reasons — not least of all because Starmer has embraced it himself, in a bid to flaunt his own credentials as a diplomatically fine-tuned statesman-in-waiting. Thus, after some standard PMQs wisecracking, he cornered Sunak: “[Greece is] a fellow NATO member, an economic ally. One of our most important partners in tackling illegal immigration. But instead of using that meeting to discuss those serious issues, he tried to humiliate him and cancelled at the last minute”. (In any case, confected antagonism over the location of statues is not really a reliable route to voters’ hearts in middle England).

It means the Elgin Marbles row, while illustrative of a broader strategy from the prime minister, neither has the saliency nor presumed anti-Starmer potency of some of Sunak’s more favoured fronts. 

Compare this to the aforementioned net zero “wedge”. Now, this is especially significant when considering the prime minister’s political pitch because it, (1), is so often referenced by Sunak and, (2), has acted as something of a gateway for him with regard to further “wedge” gambits.

It has a well-rehearsed origin story, of course. For Sunak’s philosophy on net zero flowed from a slim Conservative by-election victory in Uxbridge (simultaneous and subsequent routings in Selby, Somerton, Tamworth and Mids Beds, notwithstanding). In the July contest, Conservative candidate Steve Tuckwell capitalised on London Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s controversial plans to extend the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ). The cost of environmentally-conscious policy, Sunak then concluded, could be leveraged into a totemic national concern. Thus targets were pushed back and “pragmatism” embraced. In the end, Sunak’s net zero rejig featured front and centre of his broader rebrand as a “change candidate” at Conservative Party Conference.

But while Sunak’s association with “change” has proved ephemeral, he hugs his net zero dividing line ever-tighter — evinced by his frequent references to it in recent days at COP28.

On Thursday, the prime minister insisted he is “not in hock to ideological zealots” on climate change, adding: “Of course we’re going to get to net zero, of course it’s important, but we can do that in a sensible way that saves people money and doesn’t burden them with extra costs”. Labour takes an ideological view of climate change, is the underlying message: but the government, while committed to net zero, won’t privilege politics over practicality during a cost of living crisis.

Of course, recent Conservative prime ministers have made a virtue of their environmental credentials, both on the domestic front and on the international stage. Rishi Sunak, however, with his net zero and proposed oil and gas licensing reforms, has willingly disposed of such precedent. 

That said, the PM did try to reclaim the narrative and refresh the optics regarding his climate politics at COP28 by apportioning £1.6 billion worth of funding to climate projects. Sunak sought to foreground the moves’ underlying consistency — insisting his “pragmatic” net zero measures were aimed at “ordinary families” and those hit by the cost of living. But it is difficult to overlook the cursory incongruence as Sunak simultaneously weaponises green policy at home; his totemic net zero dividing line will necessarily blur as a result.

Perhaps in recognition of this fact, Sunak left COP28 less than 12 hours after arriving. Keir Starmer — who is supposed to exist on the wrong side of Sunak’s “wedge” — arrived at the summit on Thursday and departs on Sunday. The Labour leader consequently accused the prime minister of lacking “seriousness” on climate, adding: “The smallness of his politics is becoming a feature of his politics”. 

In this way and others (within his own party, for example), Sunak’s embrace of “wedge politics” is beginning to take a heavy toll. This is despite the fact that, in theory, Starmer has walked willingly into the “traps” laid for him by his adversaries — both by opposing the government’s net zero reforms and criticising Sunak’s Greek marbles snub. Still, neither the trajectory of the polling nor the political mood reflect poorly on the Labour leader right now. 

In fact, step back, and it is clear that the familiar cycle of new dividing line, turn new policy, turn political punishment for Keir Starmer is having rather more dire consequences for the prime minister’s own operation, as things stand.

Indeed, Westminster talks a lot about Conservative “traps” and Starmer’s potential political gullibility in falling for them. But having kept his target small enough in a bid to neutralise Tory attack lines, the Labour leader may actually himself be goading Conservatives into taking more forthright, potentially more unpopular, stances.

And, crucially, the prime minister’s love of “wedges” is yet to show signs of abating. 

In a largely forgotten speech just before the autumn statement, Sunak unveiled a further round of “pledges” — all of which are longer-term and more overtly political than their five forebears on inflation, economic growth, debt, inflation and small boats. 

With alleged “political courage”, Sunak newly vowed to cut tax, ensure energy security, back British business, develop a world-class educational system and, again, reduce government debt. Once more, this was the prime minister contouring the terrain on which the next election will be fought — but now with more classic Conservative calling cards. As ever, it’s an attempt to challenge the still unproven Starmerite electoral machine on areas it might potentially be seen as fallible. (That debt pledge now, for example — when compared to its January successor — places rather more emphasis on Starmer’s spending commitments). 

Logic of ‘Starmerism’ means Labour can never fully embrace £28bn green pledge

But the risk for Sunak with his “wedges” is twofold: (1), that he finds himself on the wrong side of public opinion more often than not and, (2), that the frequent “reinventions” make the Conservatives seem incoherent, bereft of purpose and politically adrift. In the end, a shouty, headline-grabbing style won’t work unless it is underpinned by both an identifiable narrative and genuine advances on policy. Sunak can’t simply concoct more “wedges” and pledges until a set sticks. That seems a sure-fire way to lose a general election — and lose badly. 

With problems in his own party likely deepening over the coming weeks and months, the allure of wedge politics is likely to prompt further such wheezes from No 10. Keir Starmer — biding his time and picking his moments — would do well to continue sniping from the sidelines, ensuring Sunak is the one ensnared in such hastily-laid, politically maladroit “traps”. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

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