In the spring of 2019, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt spoke at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. “Thanks to Brexit, British politics has certainly not been dull,” he told the audience.
“Mind you, our greatest constitutionalist Walter Bagehot would have been most disappointed because he wrote: ‘Dullness in parliamentary government is a test of its excellence, an indication of its success.’ On that basis we have definitely failed the Bagehot test.”
In January 2022, The Economist’s Bagehot column remained faithful to its former editor, plaintively arguing that “Boris Johnson is making boring politics look attractive.” Exactly a year later, both the Victorian journalist and his namesake column got their wish.
It is 2023 and, Christ, politics is dull. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is boring and leader of the opposition Keir Starmer is boring. It is safe to assume that Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, is boring as well, but no one has spent enough time caring about him to find out.
Last June, Starmer spent a meeting complaining about the fact that his shadow ministers kept calling him boring. “What’s boring is being in opposition,” is apparently what he said, before urging them to “to focus on the job in hand” in a “lengthy exchange described by one shadow frontbencher as ‘ironically very boring.’”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the chamber, a former cabinet minister recently whined that “we’re really boring right now and while that’s fine after the last few months, it’s not sustainable forever.” In short, welcome to Dullsville, Snore County, population: 650.
It all makes sense when you look at each part individually. Starmer was elected after the bruising election defeat of 2019 and Labour members yearned for stability after the neverending civil war of the Corbyn years. Assuming that voters would want to put quiet competence over the shameless exuberance of Boris Johnson also felt like a reasonable bet.
It’s just that things turned out differently in the end. Johnson entertained his MPs and the electorate until he didn’t. After a brief but mad libertarian interlude, the Conservative party begrudgingly decided to play it safe as well.
“They’re both recognisable types,” says Glen O’Hara, a political historian from Oxford Brookes University. “Sunak is a keen management consultant or a local bank manager who’s really keen on getting your business up. And Starmer is like a disappointed headmaster.”
The question is: do they represent what Britain wants right now? As it turns out, they actually might. When asked “What do you want to see in a prime minister?”, a YouGov poll for THE FACE found that 70 per cent of people said they would prefer someone who is “boring and reliable”. A paltry 12 per cent were longing for a leader who is “exciting and unpredictable”, and 17 per cent weren’t sure.
According to psychotherapist Lucy Beresford, this shouldn’t be a surprise. “When there is chaos or instability, we tend to retreat”, she says. “We fundamentally want to keep ourselves safe at all costs. That’s the driving principle of life.”
It is fair to say that, all in all, Britain has experienced its fair share of both chaos and instability over the past decade. The country has, in that time, seen two referendums, three general elections, five Prime Ministers and countless months of utter parliamentary chaos.
Oh, and there was a killer virus on the loose for a while. Who could forget the killer virus?! It’s been quite the ride. It makes sense that the electorate now fancies having the political equivalent of chicken soup.
Luckily for our leaders, voters really do think they are dull. According to that same YouGov survey, 51 per cent of people believed that Starmer was boring, while only 12 per cent would describe him as interesting. The figures for Sunak are strikingly similar – 48 per cent and 15 per cent, respectively. In fact, every major party leader since 2010 was seen as “boring” by a majority of respondents, except one. You can probably guess who. 24 per cent of people described BoJo as boring, while 52 per cent – clearly his lucky number – thought he was interesting.
Still, this probably shouldn’t worry his former chancellor turned successor. Johnson is the great election winner of his generation, but that probably isn’t (entirely) because of who he is.
“There were some people who voted for Boris because they thought he was funny, because he quoted Latin and they thought that was hysterical, but what was more significant was the mantra of ‘vote for me, I’ll get Brexit done really quickly and then we can just get on with life again,’” Beresford says. “Even though Boris Johnson himself was a very flamboyant performer and a very engaging person on the stump, the message was ‘vote for me and I will give you stability.’”
If that is what Sunak and Starmer are planning to sell as well, then the electorate will probably be happy to buy it. Placid politics may be a disappointment to those who were enthused by Corbyn’s radicalism or Brexit populism, but they are in a minority.
Crucially, this isn’t a recent development. “Clement Attlee was seen as incredibly dull at the time. We look back and think, ‘Oh, the achievements are massive,’ but he was incredibly taciturn,” O’Hara explains. “He would arrive at the airport and reporters would say: “Anything to share with us?” And he’d just say: ‘No.’”
Both Starmer and Sunak have been painting themselves – with varying degrees of success – as unexciting yet competent. It isn’t yet clear what they are competently doing. Bagehot had a point in arguing that a tepid Parliament is better than constant chaos, but dullness isn’t in itself a quality.
In his speech a fortnight ago, the prime minister attempted to set out his stall and outline his vision. It both felt and fell flat. His promise to “halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut waiting lists and stop the boats” was a return to bread-and-butter politics, but it is as yet unclear how he is going to achieve most of them, especially before the next election.
Starmer, meanwhile, showed a bit more ambition with his promise of a “decade of renewal,” but still fell short on more granular detail. Being ahead in the polls while in opposition may feel like defending a one goal lead, but being too cautious can be a risk – especially if there is no extravagant personality to dazzle the electorate with.
One way to inject character into an otherwise stern political project is to act as a team player. Although Harold Wilson wasn’t an especially riveting figure, especially in his second term, he came to describe himself as a “deep-lying centre half”. Unable to play every position, he let the more colourful personalities in his cabinet provide the excitement.
In comparison, Sunak’s ministers have been noticeably lowkey since he took over and, with a few exceptions, the reshuffle was notable for its promotion of safe pairs of hands. Starmer’s top team have been given a bit more space to breathe, but are mostly kept on a tight leash. Angela Rayner, one of the more boisterous MPs on the frontbench, has notably been shot down by the leader after getting carried away.
In fairness to the latter, there is little risk of a left-wing insurgent crashing onto the scene and threatening Labour’s electoral prospects. The Conservatives, on the other hand, would almost certainly suffer if Nigel Farage returned to frontline politics. According to the YouGov poll, 21 per cent of leave voters would favour a leader who is exciting and unpredictable. That is enough of a minority to create some serious trouble.
Still, from the outside at least, it doesn’t feel like something currently keeping Sunak up at night. There is also no sign of things getting friskier in the opposition, seeing as their slow steadiness is bringing in results. It may be a reasonable approach, but it is hard not to feel a dissonance between the gradual crumbling of most British institutions and the stable greyness of our most senior politicians.
Chaos is harmful but an occasional bout of passion can go a long way – especially if it matches the fury and despair of swathes of the electorate. Then again, fervour can be risky. And risky gambles are what brought us here today.
Perhaps this is just the way things will have to be for now. Rome will burn and Westminster will yawn.