Heavy is the head that wears the crown:
what 2023 may bring for the Prime Minister and his Opposition rival

Four chancellors, three prime ministers and two monarchs all marked a year of change and upheaval in 2022. Now, as 2023 picks up steam, both the new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour Leader Keir Starmer have already set out their stalls for the year ahead.

The newly crowned king

In a set piece speech to kick start 2023, the Prime Minister announced the five targets against which his government should be judged: halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing national debt, cutting waiting lists and stopping small boat crossings.

Some commentators say that Sunak is shooting for an open goal. Inflation is already forecast to be around 3% by the end of the year, and growth as weak as just 0.1% would technically meet the target of growing the economy.

But the public may be more sympathetic; relieved to hear the Prime Minister outline a clear plan of action, providing respite from the destructive warfare that characterised the Johnson and Truss premierships.

Some suggest that the Prime Minister’s speech last week was his ‘conference address that never was’, after he was denied a chance to deliver the real thing by his defeat in the Conservative leadership election in the summer. Sunak talked about his background and his upbringing, and how that aligns with his modern political philosophy, attempting to take ownership of the undoubtedly privileged background that for many is seen as a political weakness. However, as the country grapples with a cost-of-living crisis, leaving many with painful choices to make, this effort may yet fail.

Sunak is determined that his government is seen as a clean break from his predecessors, with an eye on the problems of economic growth, productivity and jobs. They have said they are open to new ideas from business. He has said he doesn’t shy away from being told things he doesn’t want to hear; businesses have an excellent opportunity to shape his Government’s thinking and provide well thought-out and costed solutions to the country’s challenges.

The pretender to the throne

Keir Starmer also delivered a set piece speech to kick off 2023, and it too focused on his upbringing.

He spoke viscerally about growing up poor in the 1970s, knowing what a cost-of-living crisis feels like first-hand. This is a message that will chime with many families struggling to get by and could work well to Starmer’s advantage.

He also unleashed an attempt to own the narrative on Brexit, using the familiar phrase ‘Take Back Control’ that Vote Leave campaign used to win the 2016 referendum. He talked about communities wanting control over their own lives and their own decisions, speaking passionately about moving power away from the centre. This follows Gordon Brown’s recent report into re-shaping power in the UK into a new devolution settlement, which Starmer says would be central to the programme of a Labour government.

Starmer has every right to feel confident. His party remains far ahead of the Conservatives in the opinion polls, though he personally is generally level-pegging or slightly behind Sunak on personal polling, which should give Sunak some comfort. The Labour Party is also making a big push to engage with business, with a well-received Business Conference in Canary Wharf sponsored by a host of household names.

Starmer has established a credible top team, especially in Rachel Reeves as his Shadow Chancellor and Wes Streeting as Shadow Health Secretary, as the country faces strikes and an over-stretched NHS. His challenge now is to press home that advantage and present Labour as a competent government-in-waiting. That may mean shuffling his shadow cabinet to bring some more widely known names to the fore, though with two years until the next election, there is still time for the country to get to know him and his team before they head to the ballot box.

Smart businesses will prioritise getting to know the opposition and building relationships that will be vital if Labour win the next election. The right messages and the right intelligence are the keys that will unlock productive future relationships with the people who might just be taking the big decisions in the coming years.

Both parties have a close eye on the election to come. They are open to ideas and alive to the big challenges the country is facing; getting a foot in the door now is key to being part of the conversation, no matter what that election brings.

If you’d like to have an informal chat with the Brands2Life Public Affairs team about how political events in 2023 may impact your business, what opportunities there are for engagement and how you can best share your ideas, expertise and insights, please get in touch via [email protected].