Sunak vs Starmer: a Prime Minister for times of war


From the steps of Downing Street on 22nd May 2024, a sodden Rishi Sunak announced 4th July as the UK general election date, in so doing sounding the starting gun for this campaign. Mr Sunak touted his record during “the most uncertain of times,” trying to set this election against the backdrop of war in Ukraine and the ravages of Covid-19. While his suit was slick with rainfall, Mr Sunak’s rhetoric was anything but wet. He helpfully reminded us that “Putin’s Russia is waging a brutal war in Ukraine and will not stop there if he succeeds,” emphasising that our energy security was particularly threatened. Mr Sunak then touted his supposed stewardship of economic stability, stressing that economic stability was the “bedrock” upon which “the defence of our country” must rest.

Since 2010, the UK has failed to spend 2.5% of its GDP on defence

Since 2010, the UK has failed in its mission to spend 2.5% of its GDP on defence, the current government target. From just over 100,000 in 2010, British Army full-time personnel stands at 75,166, as of 1st January 2024. In a recent article in The Daily Telegraph, the Earl of Minto, a Tory peer, conceded that Labour spent more on defence than the Conservatives do now. However, in his speech on 22 May, Mr Sunak was aboundingly clear in his conviction that he was the protector of UK national security, accusing Labour of having “no plan.” Mr Sunak went on to proclaim that “only a Conservative government led by me” will deliver “a secure future for you, your family and our United Kingdom.” Noting the threats of both Russia and China, Mr Sunak also claimed that in the Middle East, “the forces of Islamist extremism threaten regional and ultimately global stability,” undermining “our values” and dividing society in the UK. Mr Sunak has since unveiled a National Service plan, a policy which has Nigel Farage, former Defence Secretary Michael Portillo and the Labour Party united in its outspoken condemnation.

Which of these two leaders best embody a wartime premier?

On an 12th April visit to a BAE systems factory in Barrow-in-Furness, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said that his commitment to the UK’s nuclear weapons is “unshakable” and “absolute.” Writing in the Daily Mail, Sir Keir described the creation of the NHS and an independent British nuclear programme as “towering achievements” of the 1945 Labour government. While socialised health care is often lauded among Labour circles, the party’s relationship with defence and NATO has arguably been more complex. Sir Keir’s ebullient support for nuclear weapons serves to emphasise his claim that Labour under him is changed from that of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. Since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Labour has been divided on nuclear weapons, not least under Corbyn.

Defence is now as much a mainstay of Labour as it is the Tories

Clement Attlee, who was UK Prime Minister from 1945-51, is often celebrated as the father of the NHS and the British welfare state. However, he was also instrumental in ensuring the UK’s own nuclear deterrent, committing millions of pounds to its development at a time when the country was technically bankrupt, while he also played a key role in founding NATO. In his Mail article, Sir Keir emphasised these achievements, dubbing them a “proud part of my party’s heritage.” In Ukraine, the shells of tanks lie burnt out amidst the desolation of the Russian onslaught, while Taiwan braces for China’s next, possibly deadly, move. For both Mr Sunak and Sir Keir, the question is not simply whether they can lead the UK – but whether they can be wartime prime ministers. Mr Sunak evidently feels it necessary to emphasise his defence credentials via a sudden policy splurge, unveiling his National Service plan, while also harking back to support for Ukraine, arguably one of the best legacies of this Conservative government. However, Labour feels the historic Tory hegemony over defence credibility is unfounded; they will go to almost any length to claim they are a ‘changed’ party, and that defence is now as much a mainstay of Labour as it is the Tories. 

As the May rain fell on Downing Street, Mr Sunak sought a fresh mandate and a new vision, framed around national security. Ultimately, it will be up to voters to decide if this framing is a just one, and if so, which of these two leaders best embody a wartime premier.

Image: Rory Arnold via Wikimedia Commons

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