Is Britain entering an era of political consensus?

Pundits point out that the Tories and Labour now ‘agree on an awful lot’

Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak
Despite their differences in tone, Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak have a habit of borrowing each other’s policies
(Image credit: Illustrated/Getty Images)

Jeremy Hunt’s newly unveiled Budget highlighted the growing resemblance between Britain’s two main parties as Keir Starmer was “left to complain that the Conservatives had stolen Labour’s policies”, said a leading commentator.

Our nation’s politics appears to be entering an era of “quiet consensus”, according to The New Statesman’s George Eaton. Even as the “rhetoric escalates” ahead of the next general election, a “more banal reality is revealing itself: convergence between the Conservatives and Labour”.

‘Common ground’

The “free flow of policies” between Starmer’s Labour and Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives is “not only true of tax and spending”, wrote Eaton. Both parties are also “committed to making Brexit ‘work’ rather than reversing or radicalising it”. And “both favour higher defence spending, Trident retention and are almost indistinguishable on Ukraine policy”.

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Since ditching Liz Truss and Jeremy Corbyn as their leaders, the two parties also appear to be uniting in their mutual backing for stricter controls on illegal migration and in adopting more authoritarian stances on crime and civil liberties.

Sunak and Starmer “agree on an awful lot”, wrote Bloomberg’s Therese Raphael in November, after the duo each made pitches to the business community during Prime Minister’s Questions. “In some ways, this marks a new economic consensus in British politics”, Raphael said. In “harking back to the era of Tony Blair”, Starmer has “positioned his party squarely in the political centre”.

This apparent rightwards shift was also noted by Mark Littlewood, the director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs. Littlewood told GB News that he was “finding it really difficult to work out what the actual policy differences are between the Labour front bench and the Conservative government”.

“In some areas, you might argue that the Labour Party is actually more pro-market,” he added.

Bloomberg columnist Martin Ivens said that after “six years of turbulent, shouty politics and extravagant promises of future greatness”, it was now “easy to imagine” Sunak and Starmer “sitting down together over an alcohol-free beer” and “finding common ground – just as the dull but effective German politicians do”.

‘Poison pills’

The Tories and Labour do still diverge on some key issues, however. The £28bn a year promised by Labour to tackle the climate crisis “quadruples the government’s pledge” to spend about £7.5bn on green policies for the duration of this parliament, noted The Times’s political reporter Eleni Courea.

Starmer’s plan to replace the House of Lords with a smaller, democratically elected upper chamber is unlikely to find much favour on the Tory benches either.

And while both sides favour crackdowns on illegal immigration, Starmer’s criticism of Sunak’s plan to stop migrants crossing the Channel in small boats saw the two leaders clashing in the Commons earlier this month, with the prime minister describing the Labour leader as a “lefty lawyer”.

But such clashes aren’t necessarily a bad thing, argued Eaton in The New Statesman. “It is often when bipartisan consensus is at its strongest that the greatest mistakes are made”, he wrote, pointing to the Iraq War and “the pre-crash mania for financial deregulation”.

The Guardian columnist Andy Beckett warned that if Starmer wins the next election, his “acceptance of reckless Tory stances, for example on Brexit”, may “undermine his government”.

“Ideas inherited from other parties”, added Beckett, “can be poison pills.”

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Chas Newkey-Burden has been part of The Week Digital team for more than a decade and a journalist for 25 years, starting out on the irreverent football weekly 90 Minutes, before moving to lifestyle magazines Loaded and Attitude. He was a columnist for The Big Issue and landed a world exclusive with David Beckham that became the weekly magazine’s bestselling issue. He now writes regularly for The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Metro, FourFourTwo and the i new site. He is also the author of a number of non-fiction books.