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A tale of two speeches

05 January 2023

By Imogen Shaw

Yesterday, the Prime Minister delivered his first major speech of 2023. With the next general election widely expected in 2024, the speech seemed to mark the beginning of the long campaign.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer delivered a set-piece speech of his own in more or less exactly the same location in east London this morning, which Rishi Sunak’s intervention yesterday appears to have been designed to pre-empt.

With the Conservatives significantly behind in the polls following last year's political turmoil, the Prime Minister used his speech to set out the priorities for his premiership in the form of five pledges:

  1. Halving inflation this year.
  2. Growing the economy to create better paid jobs.
  3. Making sure national debt is falling to secure the future of public services.
  4. Reducing NHS waiting lists.
  5. Passing new laws to stop small boats, saying that those who arrive illegally will be detained and removed.

Politicians like to make pledges – Sunak’s five promises to the nation have led more than one commentator to draw comparisons with Ed Miliband’s ill-fated ‘Ed Stone’ pledges in 2015. In most cases strategically vague, the bulk of Sunak’s pledges have the advantage of being eminently achievable – not least because they align with what experts and observers already expect to happen.

His first three pledges are to lower inflation, achieve economic growth and cut national debt. With inflation running at more than 10%, the Bank of England, the markets and most forecasters are already anticipating that it will fall.

The markets and many economists already expect some growth this year, albeit at anaemic levels – and because the pledge is vague and lacks a timescale, it should be relatively easy for the Prime Minister to claim it has been delivered in advance of the next general election.

The Office for Budget Responsibility already expects that national debt will fall – and once again, the timeline for delivering this pledge is opaque enough that Sunak can feel confident he will be able to claim at the next election that the government has achieved it.

The final two pledges, on reducing NHS waiting lists and passing new laws to stop small boats, may be more challenging – not necessarily in terms of Sunak’s ability to declare them met, but in terms of public perception. It is quite possible that the government may succeed in reducing NHS waiting times, and it is certainly realistic that they can pass new laws with the objective of stopping small boats.

However, this does not mean that waiting list reductions will be sufficient to make a noticeable improvement to people’s direct experiences accessing NHS medical care. It also does not guarantee that it will be easy to implement and enforce new laws on small boats – something that will not be lost on the public, given the intense level of media coverage this issue receives.

While Telegraph sketch writer Madeline Grant was particularly cutting in her assessment of Sunak’s delivery, likening him to the AI chatbot ChatGPT, Starmer’s speech was plagued by technical issues, leading The Independent to comment that he sounded ‘like a Dalek’.

Despite the distortion to the live audio feed, Starmer’s team have reason to be pleased with the coverage of their headline promise – even if the speech itself was eclipsed in the headlines by the latest revelations concerning Prince Harry’s forthcoming autobiography.

Labour’s big announcement is that the party plans to reappropriate Vote Leave’s Brexit slogan of “Take Back Control” for the name of a new devolution bill a Labour government would pass to “spread control out of Westminster”.

Describing the proposals as the would-be centrepiece of Labour’s first King’s Speech, Starmer stated that the bill would devolve new powers over employment support, transport, energy, climate change, housing, culture, childcare provision and how councils run their finances.

As the Leader of the Opposition, Starmer had one clear advantage – where Sunak felt compelled to promise only what he is confident he will be able to deliver, Starmer had the freedom to tell a story about what the country’s future could look like under Labour.

Given the state of the polls, Labour looks increasingly confident in its ability to win a general election; however, polling also suggests Starmer has a way to go to convince the public he would make a better Prime Minister than Sunak. This week’s speeches give a very early sense of how each party and each leader hopes to shift their political fortunes as we look ahead to 2024.