OPINION - These new-look Tories are posing very awkward questions for Labour
Without fanfare, boring politics is back. The Tories are identifying problems they then seek to fix. Labour is responding by saying it is nothing more than a sticking plaster. This is the accusation that will run until the next general election. In his article in the New Statesman in which he announced his missions, Sir Keir Starmer decried the “sticking plaster politics” of the Government. He used the phrase again in his response to the Budget. The terms of trade are being set down.
Every opposition party with a serious claim on power makes the claim that the country is broken. Britain is never really broken as such — it’s an almost meaningless phrase, when you think about it — but it’s a necessary exaggeration. Unless something is broken there’s no need for new management to come in and put it right. “Sticking-plaster politics” is a new variant on this old theme, which is a more subtle criticism.
To say the Government is sticking a plaster on things is to say, in effect, that it is doing something, just not nearly enough. I have always thought it a bit harsh on the manufacturers of sticking plaster that their product should become a metaphor for inadequacy. There are some ailments, a graze on the knee, for example, for which a sticking plaster is exactly the correct surgical response. The Labour accusation is that, with inflation still high and living standards about to tumble faster than at any time since the 1950s, a grazed knee is not the correct analogy. The dysfunctional housing market, a struggling NHS, social care, climate change; this is more like a broken leg.
The strange sentences and analogies in that last paragraph reveal a little of why “sticking plaster” is an odd slogan to use. It’s strangely complicated and might even concede a truth on which the Government can play.
Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are trying out the novel strategy of actually running the country. It has been a long time since anybody tried that. Boris Johnson never threatened to achieve anything once he had got Brexit done. Liz Truss had just enough time to send the markets crashing but no time to do anything else.
The last few weeks have charted a course for the Government, Sunak had no particular need to take on the Northern Ireland protocol. He decided to take a risk and it paid off handsomely. He impressed the attending civil servants with his command of detail, not something Johnson was ever accused of. The resultant deal doesn’t look like a sticking plaster. It looks like a splint, if we must continue this metaphor.
That was followed by a Budget last week that was more politically astute than most in recent memory. It provoked no market fury, it contained an incentive — in the reform of the lifetime allowance for pensions — for the elderly to carry on voting Tory and it included a classic political land-grab with the childcare offer. It is probably too late for a full Tory recovery — there is too much ground to make up — but there were the first glimpses that the Conservatives might yet be competitive.
It is true that the fix-it duo of Sunak and Hunt will now be forced to vacate the stage for a week as the political class will be pre-occupied with Johnson’s appearance under oath in front of the Privileges Committee to defend the charge of knowingly or recklessly misleading Parliament. Today, Johnson will submit his legal defence which the committee is likely to publish tomorrow before the televised shenanigans on Wednesday.
For three days, Johnson will dominate the political airspace almost as effectively as Gary Lineker did. The Victims Bill, which was due to be published this week, is now likely to be held back. So is an announcement on energy efficiency and a review of the state pension age. The two tribes will reform briefly. One will declare it a witch-hunt, the other will declare it a whitewash. But it will pass.
Sunak will turn his attention to a trade deal with India. He will look for a series of crime-related problems on which progress can come quickly. And it might soon seem as if the trouble with “sticking plaster” as a slogan is that it turns out to be a bit of a sticking plaster. If the Tories can point at problems they have fixed, the requirement for Labour to define its own remedies will be all the greater. If not a sticking plaster, then what? It is not obvious that Labour yet has a good answer.