Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the dullest of them all? It’s not a trick question. Instead, it’s the new beauty contest in British politics. Which leader can come across as the most reassuringly predictable – Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer? Where in the past dullness was a tag any decent spin doctor would try to shake off with humanising interviews and well-timed quips, these days it’s starting to be viewed as a key asset.

As a year of three Prime Ministers, in which there has been a ministerial resignation every four days on average, draws to a close, looking sensible is prioritised over charisma. The chaotic fallout from Liz Truss’s not-so-mini budget saw the phrase “moron’s premium” circulate in finance circles – pointing to the higher interest rates a country can face once credibility is lost. Now in UK politics there is a new term: a dullness dividend. Both Labour and the Tories are seeking to benefit from it.

During Boris Johnson’s time as prime minister, he sought to present Starmer as lacking in personality. In contrast, Johnson enjoyed being the centre of attention and promised to shake things up. There were multiple speeches from the buccaneering leader, scandal from within his court and colourful phrases attempting to catch the public’s attention. It worked for a while – with even Labour MPs lamenting their leader as 2D.

During Liz Truss’s brief stint in power, she proudly wore the term disruptor. It was a fair description. The financial ramifications were such that even those who usually ignored politics felt the effect of her government’s antics.

The new No 10 is going for a very different approach. As Michael Gove put it in a speech soon after Sunak’s appointment and his own return to government: “boring is back” before apologising to the likely affected hacks for the Government’s “utter determination to try to be as dull as possible”.

He can’t say he didn’t warn us. Since then, No 10 have ramped up their efforts to take politics off the front page – with some success as the World Cup has started to dominate. In a bid to keep it this way, Downing Street has reduced the number of media rounds each week and attempted to limit the time of any ministerial morning interview to a mere eight minutes. “We need not feed the beast,” insists a minister. Meanwhile, special advisers are on strict instructions not to leak the contents of meetings.

Potential rebellions are headed off as quickly as possible. Rather than try to face down Tory MPs with a show of brute force as Johnson did, Sunak wants them to quietly fizzle out. He is more inclined to find a compromise – as was the case on the recent planning rebellion regarding the ditching of mandatory housing targets.

While Labour still lead comfortably in the polls, the view in senior Tory circles is that the path to success – whether that’s avoiding political extinction or winning a fifth term – rests on taking the drama away from the day-to-day.

Remove the psychodrama out of politics and stop daily politics news filtering into people’s lives. Then when that’s done, start to build a positive case for re-election. Or as one senior minister puts it: “If we can restore economic competence and weather the current crisis, we could get to the next election and have the public decide that the Tories are the less risky bet and they are best not risking a Labour government.” The Tories want to stop Starmer from being viewed as the sensible alternative.

As for Labour, even Starmer’s promises of change come with a heavy tablespoon of caution. His Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves views restoring faith in fiscal competence as a more important aim than exciting voters. “It’s not the worst thing in the word for Labour to look cautious on the economy,” admits a Tory MP – looking on nervously.

One area where Labour have shown more radicalism is on private schools with the pledge to add VAT and axe their charitable status. But after the party was accused of waging a class war, Starmer used interviews this week to make clear that he has no plans to abolish private schools – instead suggesting they play an important role.

Even though senior figures in both parties sense a lack of public appetite for high drama, it’s not always in the control of the leader. Sunak continues to face a restive party – used to raising their voices when things go wrong.

While Sunak managed to unite MPs around a tricky autumn statement of tax rises and spending cuts, the number of Tory rebellions since shows that there is still plenty of appetite in the parliamentary party to stick one’s head above the parapet. Many of the new intake are independently minded and view themselves as having their own brand – which makes the job of the chief whip harder. MPs standing down at the next election, too, have little incentive to behave. Flash points in the new year could come in the form of the Northern Ireland protocol, small boat crossings and cost of living.

Meanwhile, Starmer faces critical voices within his shadow cabinet – they worry that the current Labour lead is inflated and more down to Tory misfortune than Labour success. The argument goes that a radical vision could be required to really stay ahead in the coming 18 months.

For Sunak, his team believe they have had some success in taking the drama out of Westminster. But they know this alone won’t be enough to turn the party’s fortunes around. “We need something to say and to go on the attack,” says one minister.

When the Prime Minister returns in the new year, don’t expect a buccaneering leader. That’s far from their plans. The pitch is quiet competence. But he will still need to start making the political weather to have an impact – even if it is in a quieter, calmer manner than what came before.

Katy Balls is deputy political editor at The Spectator

QOSHE - In the battle for boring, how will Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer control outspoken MPs? - Katy Balls
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In the battle for boring, how will Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer control outspoken MPs?

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07.12.2022

Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the dullest of them all? It’s not a trick question. Instead, it’s the new beauty contest in British politics. Which leader can come across as the most reassuringly predictable – Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer? Where in the past dullness was a tag any decent spin doctor would try to shake off with humanising interviews and well-timed quips, these days it’s starting to be viewed as a key asset.

As a year of three Prime Ministers, in which there has been a ministerial resignation every four days on average, draws to a close, looking sensible is prioritised over charisma. The chaotic fallout from Liz Truss’s not-so-mini budget saw the phrase “moron’s premium” circulate in finance circles – pointing to the higher interest rates a country can face once credibility is lost. Now in UK politics there is a new term: a dullness dividend. Both Labour and the Tories are seeking to benefit from it.

During Boris Johnson’s time as prime minister, he sought to present Starmer as lacking in personality. In contrast, Johnson enjoyed being the centre of attention and promised to shake things up. There were multiple speeches from the buccaneering leader, scandal from within his court and colourful phrases attempting to catch the public’s attention. It worked for a while – with even Labour MPs lamenting their leader as 2D.

During Liz Truss’s brief stint in power, she proudly wore the term disruptor. It was a fair........

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