Sunak was no match for Starmer in their first new year face-off. But this settles nothing | Polly Toynbee

A salvo of speeches opened the election season, so who won? No contest, but it’s an unfair competition when all the weapons are on Labour’s side. What a blunder Rishi Sunak made in rushing to get in first at a copycat venue for a face-off bound to expose his impossible weakness and his own thin offer. Was that it, the BBC asked. He provided the perfect backdrop for Keir Starmer to make his best speech yet, offering “competent and compassionate” government to push power out of Westminster for “a decade of national renewal.”

Sunak inadvertently set up this imagery of the past and the future as he stood on his burning platform in some kind of asbestos of denial. He seemed impervious to the fires licking around his feet, as if oblivious to those who can’t heat homes, buy enough food, call an ambulance, summon police to a burglary, post a letter or catch a train, while wages fall and credit card debts rise.

He said nothing offensive, but it echoed off some other planet when he talked about maths, fintech, quantum, life sciences and artificial intelligence. Ah, AI. That’s it. Think of him as one of Kazuo Ishiguro’s AFs, or artificial friends – robots that are very nearly real but not quite. Is this green-card jetsetter PM really here, or away in Santa Monica?

In contrast, Starmer offered substance, making difficult ideas relatable. Devolution may be dry, but he struck a chord by arguing that trust in power at the centre is broken, and that letting people make important decisions close to home can link things up locally, away from Westminster’s warring departmental silos. Trusting in communities is human-scale politics – and a very big idea. It would be “a new way of governing”, covering everything from the NHS and crime to schools, skills, planning, transport and the environment. He stole the killer Brexit slogan in his plans for a take back control act, which would wrest away Whitehall’s “hoarded” power. One way to renew trust in Westminster is to elect politicians who dare to relinquish it.

Keir Starmer criticises government for ’13 years of sticking-plaster politics’ – video

Compare that with Sunak’s five pledges, from halving inflation to reducing debt – desirable economic outcomes, certainly, but almost bound to happen anyway. Nothing signified any direction of travel. There was no sign of who he is or what he’s for, beyond carrying on and carrying on.

The trouble with AI is that it mimics reality but it doesn’t do new ideas. It can’t regret 13 years of government that have left us at the bottom of the G7 pile. AI can’t process the nexus of contradictory Tory cabals, leaving Sunak unable to do anything that may offend any of them. AI can’t do what’s needed to rethink a modern conservativism after years of self-destruction.

The contrast flattered Starmer, accentuated his intelligence and empathy: nothing burnishes confidence like success. Often criticised for his caution, he steps out more now, yet that caution is still present: there are no missteps, no trips on the cliff-edge path to the polling booths. Winning this first round of the countless gladiatorial encounters to come settles nothing; everyone in Labour knows it.

Not even being 20 points ahead in the polls feels safe in these treacherously volatile times – just think of the victory snatched away in 1992. Even now Sunak is just ahead of Starmer as best PM, and just ahead too on building a strong economy. Starmer wins as best for “representing change”, “bringing people together” and “caring about people like me”, but while these are nice to have, being rated for your leadership and approach to the economy are essentials. Be wary when Sunak’s pledges to cut inflation and restart growth technically come to pass as a bogus light at the end of the tunnel, even though incomes still fall.

That’s why Starmer and the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, must keep hammering on ad nauseam about fiscal responsibility and never spending more than they raise. That’s why they need to talk about no big state chequebook. How Labour relished the Telegraph splash: Starmer: We’re no longer the party of big spending, landing just where it’s needed.

But note how Starmer refused to pledge to stick to Tory spending plans, avoiding the painful two-year trap Blair and Brown fell into in 1997. Labour’s plans leave ample flexibility, to make good its pledges to tax non-doms to pay for nurses, or charge VAT on private schools to hire desperately needed teachers. Borrowing only to invest is fine: so much investment is needed in everything – human capital as well as bricks and mortar.

The lack of a pledge to rejoin the single market has upset many, but it stops the Tories reprising Brexit politics. Why worry, when once in power Labour is bound to begin a whole new EU relationship? Those Labour people suspicious of too much “centrism” in Starmer should note his adept handling of the strikes: he has promised to repeal any new malevolent anti-union laws, and he would negotiate and compromise. The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, has condemned the “unworkable and immoral” Rwanda plan. Message discipline means sidestepping all Tory “woke” attacks designed to shift the election way from Labour’s winning turf: the economy, cost of living and public services.

Remember this: when the day dawns on a new government, it has absolute freedom as the defeated parties crawl away for a long while, their arguments lost. So it was in 1979, 1997 and 2010. Today’s speech set Labour on course for victory with a clear purpose. But the party still has to win.

  • Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

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Polly Toynbee