Keir Starmer has accused Rishi Sunak of “shrinking and retreating” from showcasing leadership on the global stage at Cop28 and over the climate crisis.
The Labour leader said the transition to net zero could benefit millions of people in the UK who are struggling with the cost of living crisis. But instead, the “smallness” of Sunak’s politics was affecting his ability to show a “seriousness and a want to lead” on the issue.
Starmer made his comments on the first day of the Cop28 summit, which he attended with the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, and the shadow net zero secretary, Ed Miliband.
Officials believe the first day of the summit got off to a positive start for the UK given Sunak’s financial pledges on loss and damage funding.
Starmer said he has had a “lot of engagement” and many requests for bilateral meetings, “more requests than we can possible handle”.
It came after the prime minister said Starmer was “catching up” on his work as chancellor when he presented a special green budget box at the Cop26 summit to showcase the then government’s plans to make 450 London companies adopt environmental policies.
Sunak told reporters: “I was at Cop26 with my green budget box, hosting what everyone considered to be, I think, the best finance day that had ever happened at Cop, and there was that much focus on it. God knows how many finance ministers from around the world were there. We had a fantastic day. So it’s something that I know particularly well … I think we’ll make good progress at the summit on it as well.
“So, it’s great that he’s catching up but I wouldn’t expect much more from the copy-and-paste shadow chancellor. That seems to be a track record these days of copying our policies.”
Starmer hit back, suggesting Sunak had been exploiting the climate crisis to sow division.
“The prime minister said this morning we will be judged by our grandchildren not on what we said, but what we did and what we didn’t do,” he said.
“And therefore, for the prime minister to reduce this down in the way that he does, the smallness of his politics is becoming a feature of his politics. We saw it with the Greek prime minister. We saw it with some of the lines that he was putting out about ‘eco zealots’ as he got on the plane to come here. This is not something to shrink from, not something to retreat from.
“What we want, what so many people want, is to see global leadership from the UK. And that’s why, going back to where I started, among the reasons we’re here is a statement of intent to say if there’s an incoming Labour government, things will be done differently and we will rise to the international stage, not retreat from it.”
Miliband said: “The power of your example really matters in these negotiations. I was here, I was doing these negotiations 15 years ago. People really care what you’re doing at home. And if you send a message to people that at home, you’re in retreat, but then you’re going to go and lecture other people, you will have much less impact.”
On Friday morning, after King Charles’s opening statement, Starmer met Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of Nato, and was due to speak to the king of Jordan in the afternoon “predominantly about Cop but also for obvious reasons about the situation in the Middle East”.
“They want reassurance that an incoming Labour government will ensure the UK is leading again on the international stage. They are concerned to see the current prime minister is looking as though he’s in retreat on climate change,” he said.
“That is something that he may think is relevant for the small politics of party politics.”