Voices: The next election will be a contest of competence – thank goodness

We saw a preview of the election campaign between Keshi Sumer and Rishir Starnak this week. One of them gave a speech declaring: “It’s time for change.” The other replied to it by giving a speech the day before warning: “Beware politicians promising easy change – only I offer real and lasting change.”

We have been used in recent years to politics being a contest of starkly opposed choices – not just Brexit versus Not Brexit, but Corbynism versus Capitalism too. Suddenly, politics has narrowed to a choice between two flavours of managerialism. It was already becoming hard for some voters to tell the two main parties apart during the pandemic: in one focus group a floating voter was asked what she thought of Keir Starmer, and she said: “Is he the money man?” She had confused him with Rishi Sunak, of whom she approved because of the furlough scheme.

Labour’s trajectory since the last election has been from one extreme to the other. Just three years ago it stood for Not Brexit and a Corbynite high tax, spend and borrow economy; now it stands for “Take Back Control” and a Blairite adherence to Conservative spending plans. Starmer’s attempt to steal the Leave campaign’s slogans in his New Year speech was as bold as his conversion to fiscal orthodoxy.

The distance Starmer has travelled has been partially obscured by the Conservative attempt to break out of the centrist consensus on the other side. But after the failure of Liz Truss’s “Torbynism”, trying to cut taxes at the expense of everything else, both parties are now vying to occupy the same narrow strip of the centre ground.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, says in an interview in The Times today that the Truss disaster has made it easier to convince her party of the need for fiscal responsibility: “If you start announcing a load of things and you can’t say where the money is going to come from, you end up crashing the economy.”

Elsewhere in the interview, she criticises Mick Lynch, the rail union leader, for his sexism and says, “I wouldn’t say that,” when asked about Ed Miliband’s division of businesses into “predators and producers”. She even says that she wants people to start their own businesses and says that she wouldn’t add, “But, good God, don’t get rich out of it,” echoing Peter Mandelson’s line about being “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes”.

No wonder George Osborne, the former chancellor, says: “I now feel that with Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt and Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves we have two sets of people who are sensible and have integrity and are more than capable of governing the country. I’m still a Conservative so I would rather have Rishi and Jeremy, but it wouldn’t be terrible for the country if it were Keir and Rachel.”

Reeves was even spotted at a party recently talking to Osborne, and tells The Times: “He is the last person to have gone from the position of shadow chancellor to chancellor, so it’s interesting to talk to him about that transition.”

The dog that hasn’t barked in the Great Convergence is the Labour Party. There is a bit of Tweedledee-and-Tweedledumming on social media, but the condemnations of Starmer and Reeves for selling out to lite Toryism seem to lack conviction. Funny what an effect losing four elections in a row can have. I remember Tony Banks, the fiery Socialist Campaign Group MP, who said before the 1997 election that party members would accept that the moon is made of blue cheese if they thought it would help to win.

What is telling is that the noisy protests against the triumph of centrism are coming from the Conservative side. Peter Cruddas, the Tory peer, and Nadine Dorries, the Tory peer-presumptive, continue to foster disunity on behalf of Boris Johnson. Despite Johnson himself concluding that even if he could have beaten Sunak in a vote of party members, his return to lead the government wouldn’t work because the party was too divided.

Telling, because it means that the way is clear for Starmer and Reeves to complete their work of eliminating differences between Labour and the government on fiscal policy. The outstanding questions are whether Labour will continue to promise to borrow an extra £28bn a year for its “green prosperity plan”, and the related question of whether it will accept Jeremy Hunt’s new fiscal rule of limiting annual borrowing to 3 per cent of national income.

I understand these issues are being discussed among shadow cabinet ministers, but that both Starmer and Reeves take the view that they should put off making any decisions for as long as possible. That may be sensible, but they will end up at the election promising to abide by Conservative spending plans, just as Labour did in 1997. As with New Labour, there will be a few modest pledges paid for by modest tax rises – in the current case on non-doms, school fees and anything else Reeves can find that the focus groups will accept – but the differences between the two parties will be smaller than at any election since 1997.

This is a good thing, in my view. I share Osborne’s relief, from (just) the other side of the fence, that the choice at the next election will be between “two sets of people who are sensible and have integrity and are more than capable of governing the country”. What a refreshing change that will be.