'Insignificant' Rishi Sunak outmanoeuvred at every turn by 'prime minister-in-waiting'

From Cop28 to domestic politics, the focus has turned from the relatively new British Prime Minister to his expected successor Keir Starmer

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attends the opening ceremony of the World Climate Action Summit at Cop28 in Dubai. PA
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There is a moment in any political leader's life when the game is up.

It’s the point when they start to be written off, as all eyes turn to the next person. Rishi Sunak has reached that juncture. Try as he might, the British Prime Minister cannot convince anyone that he will be in situ beyond the next general election.

Nowhere is that shift more apparent than on the international stage. At home he can disappear behind the door of Number 10; press releases give him the appearance of being busy; his speeches and photo opportunities are carefully stage-managed; in the Commons, the Tory MPs dutifully voice their support; and in TV interviews he commands respect as the serving PM and he can ignore questions and trot out heavily spun scripts. But in dealings with other world leaders, there is no hiding place, no avoiding the grim reality.

The ballot may still be about a year away. In the immediate term, Mr Sunak remains in charge. Should a crisis arise and should there be a pressing, urgent need, his opinion carries weight. Otherwise, as far as his peers are concerned, Mr Sunak's time in charge is over.

At Cop28, Mr Sunak paid a fleeting visit and spoke somewhat disingenuously about Britain’s pioneering role in combating climate change. This, after he rolled back his green promises in response to an unexpected Tory victory in the Uxbridge by-election that, because of constituency peculiarities, saw voters swing towards determinedly pro-car measures.

Buoyed by that success and clutching at any opening, Mr Sunak has since been promoting fossil fuels and slowing the eco push while maintaining he is fully committed to meeting net-zero targets. It’s a stance that fools no one, least of all his fellow leaders.

On the way to Dubai, Mr Sunak was pictured aboard the prime ministerial plane, surrounded by journalists, notebooks in hand, seemingly anxious to hear his plans. It was a photo that tried to say he was in command, this was the official aircraft and they were hanging on his every word.

On the ground, it was Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and his entourage and time that were very much in demand. The Labour delegation, which included shadow foreign secretary David Lammy and shadow net zero secretary Ed Miliband, could barely cope with the slew of high-level invitations.

They and their boss were everywhere, and not just answering questions about Labour’s environmental policies. Mr Starmer held talks with Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of Nato. The King of Jordan, Abdullah II, wanted to speak to him, “predominantly about Cop, but also for obvious reasons about the situation in the Middle East”.

That last part twisted the knife. It went further, pushed by Mr Starmer when the Labour chief said those he was meeting “want reassurance that an incoming Labour government will ensure the UK is leading again on the international stage”.

In theory, Mr Starmer and his colleagues ought not to have been there at all. They’re the opposition. Mr Starmer, though, said it was “in British national interest” they were present, it was a “statement of intent” and he was talking to world leaders and global investors about how his party would work with them as the new government.

Mr Sunak, for his part, was reduced to accusing his rival of adopting a “copy-and-paste” approach. Labour, he said, has “a track record these days of copying our policies”.

Diary appointments are being shuffled and priorities realigned. The hurt this is causing to Mr Sunak became all too apparent when he cancelled his meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The latter was on a trip to London. He was on his way to meet Mr Starmer in parliament when notice came that his session with Mr Sunak was off. It was a coincidence, but it did not feel like that.

Mr Sunak told MPs he ditched the invitation “when it was clear that the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss substantive issues but rather to grandstand” about the Parthenon marbles, sold to the British Museum by Lord Elgin.

It seemed petty of Mr Sunak and only served to underline Mr Starmer’s credentials as PMIW – prime minister in waiting. The pair had indeed talked about the marbles but he had also discussed with “a fellow Nato member, an economic ally and one of our most important partners in tackling illegal immigration” other topics. These were “the economy, security and immigration” – vital and prime ministerial in other words.

Their encounter looked for all the world to be official and businesslike. There were official pictures released of Mr Starmer, Mr Lammy and Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, sitting with the Greek delegation around a conference table.

Mr Sunak was accused of throwing a “hissy fit” by former Tory chancellor George Osborne. To compound his misery, at Cop, King Charles III chose to wear a tie that looked suspiciously like the Greek flag. Again, pure accident, insisted Buckingham Palace. Similarly, few thought so.

Whether it’s Cop, Washington, Brussels, wherever, even in London itself, the signals are obvious. Somehow, Mr Sunak has to grin and bear it. What he must not do is what he did over Greece. That makes him appear small-minded and only elevates Mr Starmer higher.

As David Cameron, ironically returned as the new Foreign Secretary in a last throw of the dice by Mr Sunak to gain some gravitas in the world’s capitals, himself said when bowing out as Prime Minister: “I was the future once.”

Sadly for Mr Sunak, Mr Starmer is that future now.

Published: December 04, 2023, 10:24 AM
Updated: December 06, 2023, 3:01 PM