Voices: Rishi Sunak may not succeed, but he is trying to do the right things
The symmetry was significant. Labour’s five missions, announced by Keir Starmer on Thursday, mirror the prime minister’s five pledges announced last month. They invite comparison, while also conveying an implication: that a Labour government would be similar to the current one, only more competent and not held back by a divided Conservative Party.
Unfortunately for Starmer, comparing the two sets of five priorities does not favour Labour. The Labour missions cover more ground, and so potentially offer more substance. The first three of Rishi Sunak’s pledges – “halving inflation”, “economy growing” and “debt falling” – are economic, whereas Starmer has only one economic mission, to “secure the highest sustained growth in the G7”.
Thus, while both parties reserve one slot of the five for the NHS, Labour offers missions on crime, education and clean energy in place of the Tory pledge to stop the small boats.
On crime and education, however, Labour offers only platitudes: “Make Britain’s streets safe” and “Break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage.” We are promised detail and targets later.
Meanwhile, on clean energy the party switches to the highly specific and unrealistic, promising to make Britain’s entire electricity supply green by 2030.
That one ought to be called “mission: impossible”. Starmer tried to make a virtue of how hard it would be, saying that business people tell him: “This is a bit much, Keir. Clean electricity by 2030 will be going some.”
They are being polite. If a Labour government takes office at the end of next year, it will have five years to hit the target. Increasing wind and solar power might be technically feasible, and even admirably ambitious, but carbon-free power for when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining is the problem.
Nuclear power stations cannot be built in time; the technology to capture and store Co2 from burning fossil fuels doesn’t yet exist; nor is it feasible, yet, to store enough energy, even if it were possible to generate a big surplus in those hours when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining.
That makes two impossible promises on Starmer’s list, against one on Sunak’s. Labour’s mission to outperform the rest of the G7 economically is moonshine. The technical term for such a “drive for growth” is Trussonomics.
The capacity of some Tories to ignore the lesson of a recent attempt to defy the laws of arithmetic in pursuit of growth at all costs is awe-inspiring enough; but for Labour to say that she had the right idea, and only executed it badly, truly boggles the mind.
Any politician not in the Green Party would want the country to be more prosperous, and is bound to compare our economic performance with similar countries, but to set outperforming the best of six named countries as a target is a plan for failure.
The best that can be said about Labour’s mission is that no plan is better than a bad plan. Labour has no plan to achieve its target, while Liz Truss’s plan was unfunded tax cuts. At least no plan has a chance of doing no harm.
Against such impossibilism, Sunak’s fifth pledge – to stop the small boats – seems merely extremely difficult. His other four pledges were derided for being descriptions of what was expected to happen anyway: inflation will come down; the economy is likely to grow (even if not by much); the national debt will start to fall as a share of the economy if independent forecasts are right; and NHS waiting lists are expected to shorten slightly by the time of the next election.
But most people would rather have believable targets rather than vacuous aspirations.
The pledge to stop Channel crossings, though, is different. The numbers are rising, year on year, and the only credible deterrent will be if most arrivals are detained, assessed and deported straight away. The government tried to make a start on clearing the backlog this week by speeding up applications for asylum from countries such as Syria whose citizens are usually granted it, but the task is huge and legally fraught – and the time until the election is short.
Why, then, is Sunak devoting so much political capital to trying to solve another “impossible” problem – one that isn’t even on his list of five priorities – namely the Northern Ireland protocol? It seems liable to provoke the Tory back benches, contrary to his policy as prime minister so far of trying to hold the party together. It gives Boris Johnson the chance to make hypocritical trouble, complaining about an attempt to fix a deal that he admits he got wrong.
But on the other hand, it is the right thing to do. Sunak needs to try to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland, which means giving the DUP in turn the chance to do the right thing.
Sunak may be fighting a tide of affairs against him. He may be about to be swept out of office by voters who think that the Conservatives have been in office too long. If he is going to lose, though, he might as well go down doing what needs to be done.
Especially as that is also the best strategy for avoiding defeat. His only hope of resisting the tide is to try to show that he can deliver competent government, and that he can solve difficult problems. The symbolism of success in Northern Ireland may matter to voters in the rest of the UK more than the practical details.
If he can deliver a deal there, he is more likely to be given credit for a sincere and sustained effort to make progress on his five priorities. It may not work, but what was telling about Starmer’s five jargon-laden missions was that there was nothing in them to suggest that Labour could do a better job.