The Labour Party was in Liverpool this week. "Let's Get Britain's Future Back" the slogan. The Conservative Party was in Manchester last week, "Let's Get Britain's History Behind Us" the objective. For the Labour Party, it was the best of times. For the Tories, it was the worst of times.
News that NHS waiting lists had topped 8 million was bad, but then came news waiting lists would have to be added to prison occupation. Judges were warned sentencing should be delayed, the prison cells were full. But where to put them. Criminals could be handcuffed to trolleys outside A&E or held over in prison delivery vehicles, or put on a flight to Rwanda, the home office favourite option, perhaps.
Rishi Sunak was forced to admit the list of project for infrastructure in the North was "illusory". Although the word used was "illustrative", I guess we knew what he meant. OK, the metro link to Manchester airport was on the list, even though it was completed over seven years ago. A simple mistake by a few SPADs, late at night, over drinks and pizza in the Midland hotel.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt was in cautious mode. Tens of billions of pounds of higher debt interest payments and a slowing economy suggest the UK's fiscal picture is far worse than it was in the spring. The growth outlook has worsened, ruling out the possibility of tax cuts this Autumn. No excitement ahead of the Autumn statement. So what is the point of an Autumn statement at all?
"Make UK" has urged the Chancellor to drop the concept of an Autumn statement altogether, there really is nothing to add. If the best policy offer from the Prime Minister is a ban on smoking and maths to eighteen, then what can a beleaguered Chancellor offer, in a week in which the IMF downgrades forecasts for growth.
So it was left to Prime Minister in waiting, Sir Kier Starmer to fill the void. Starmer's conference speech was considered to be one of his best yet. It didn't get off to a great start. When he walked on stage, a protester sprang upon him with a handful of glitter before being tackled to the ground by security. "If he thinks that bothers me, he doesn't know me," Starmer quipped. John Prescott would have thumped the intruder. Starmer didn't look bothered. He just took off his sparkly jacket, rolled up his sleeves and carried on. His audience loved him for it.
According to Freddie Hawyard in the New Statesman, his main theme was rebuilding the future through infrastructure investment, planning reform and 1.5 million new homes. Starmer wants to build another generation of new towns, like Clement Attlee before him. He spoke of investment not as a burden on the national debt but as an opportunity to save money, crowd in private finance, create jobs and growth.
"Government must steer the ship on industrial policy. That's a crucial part of any plan for growth," Starmer insisted, he wanted "not state control, not pure free markets, but a genuine partnership between business and government."
It was a speech devoid of detail but offered direction. ‘Never interfere with an enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself.’ the guideline. Starmer was keen to avoid giving the Tories too much ammunition. Tony Blair had carefully avoided detail in the run-up to the election of 1997. So careful was he, not to go into any detail in that campaign, that Roy Jenkins famously described Tony Blair as being "like a man carrying a Ming vase across a highly polished floor".
"Sir Kier Starmer", according to Philip Johnston in The Telegraph, "is the latest Labour leader tip-toeing towards an election, terrified he will drop the priceless piece of porcelain". "His windy speech at the party conference, was replete with hackneyed generalizations and low on specifics."
The Labour leader said "he wanted the nation to "walk towards a decade of national renewal and face down the age of insecurity". "Contrasting 13 years of things can only get better, with 13 years of things have only got worse".
So what to make of it all? Rishi Sunak's rating has fallen to a record low since the Conservative Party conference, according to polling for The Times. The YouGuv survey found that only 20 per cent of voters believed Sunak would make the best Prime Minister.
Sir Keir Starmer's rating fell by two points, to 32 per cent. Highlighting the uncertainty among voters a year before the possible date of the next election. 43 per cent of voters said they were not sure who would make the best leader.
Matt Hancock in The Times today reports "In our monthly Times Radio focus group we asked a group of undecided voters what they made of it all. Sunak was seen as "quietly confident" "wealthy", "unbelievable", "untrustworthy" and "very, very, very rich". Starmer, by contrast, was "boring", "hopeless', "drab", "rubbish", "wet", "uninspiring" and "vanilla".
It just goes to show, "not all that glitters can be sold." Even so, the latest YouGov/Times voting intention poll, post conference, shows the Conservatives on 24% to Labour's 47% up two points. It promises to be an interesting year ahead.
The Saturday Economist
John Ashcroft publishes the Saturday Economist. Join the mailing list for updates on the UK and World Economy.
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