Express & Star

Andy Richardson: Keir and Rishi – try to spot the difference

The voices on the left are growing louder. What, precisely, is the difference between Rishi and Sir Keir – apart from a blue and a red tie?

Keir Starmer and, slightly to the right, Rishi Sunak

Both are focused on fiscal prudence, both are hamstrung by those on the fringes of their party, both are naturally cautious and eschew the dangerous forms of populism that characterised the time in office of such characters as Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Jeremy Corbyn.

Rishi isn’t shy of the odd culture war, Sir Keir chooses not to fly to meetings by helicopter – but, beyond the flotsam and jetsam, what, really, is the difference?

After all, Rishi is accused by some in his party of being socialist while Sir Keir is accused by left-wing opponents of being the new David Cameron.

The similarities are easy to see. Both were elected in 2015 and could fairly consider their biggest challenge to be rescuing their parties from the toxic legacies of their predecessors. Yet, in truth, the similarities are almost entirely superficial. Yes, they both have barely disguised contempt for the fool that was Johnson, and they both scrub up well in smartly-tailored suits, but the likeness ends about there.

Technocratic and socially conservative, Sir Keir is a centrist. Like Tony Blair, but without the charisma and less likely to fall into traps that befell his predecessor. He has climbed a mountain in making his party electable and in minimising the role of the left. In 2019, Labour faced an existential crisis. Now Sir Keir is in safety-mode, lest he invoke the ghost of Neil Kinnock and fall at the last fence.

When it comes to policy, he is the antithesis of Mr Sunak. While he won’t spell out his big visions or vote-seeking pledges, his position is clear. Mr Sunak believes in little regulation, small Government, and low tax. The state should let the markets decide and the crisis in the NHS might be more easily solved by allowing the private sector to become more involved.

Sir Keir, in contrast, believes in an active government that is larger and plays a bigger part in people’s lives. That will mean higher taxes and better services, simply, with an NHS that is at the centre of his political ambition, rather than one facing managed decline.

Another key difference is our relationship with Europe. While Mr Sunak has done well to re-engage with political leaders who were alienated by the cavalier, renegade tactics of Mr Johnson, he is a natural Brexiter. He doesn’t want to be aligned with Europe and believes there are gains to be made by going it alone. The only trouble is, the further down that road we drive, the more obvious that mistake becomes.

Sir Keir, in contrast, believes in closer alignment with Europe. He isn’t foolhardy enough to believe we can undo the mess created by Johnson, Farage and co – if we were to seek re-entry to Europe now, it would be on far worse terms – though he’s keen to work more closely, like the divorced couple who become friends. Many businesses, stymied by red tape, instability, needless expense, delays and falling orders, would welcome that.

There are other, obvious differences. Sir Keir wants to crack down on non-doms, Rishi doesn’t, especially after his wife was caught up in a controversy of his own making. Sir Keir would hit profiteering businesses with windfall taxes and treat private schools differently – evidence of social inclusion.

That is borne out in polling on the respective leader’s policies on the cost of living. Sir Keir has a huge lead over Starmer – with 28 per cent believing he’s more in tune with the public and more likely to help them through the Johnson-and-Truss-induced gloom. In an IPSOS poll, he’s considered more competent – though, like Sunak, he’s considered just as likely to break them as the PM. Sir Keir is 31 per cent ahead on his policies on public services, with most believing Mr Sunak doesn’t consider them a priority.

And so while both men appear similar, with caution and the avoidance of risk at the heart of their work, the differences between them are, in fact, greater than we might think.