DAN HODGES: Sir Keir Starmer is like Gareth Southgate. No10 is in sight but his caution could yet cost him victory
On the opening Sunday of the Labour Conference, Woburn Partners, the PR company run by Tom Watson’s former spin doctor James Robinson, held its annual party for delegates. Hosted in a trendy Liverpool speakeasy, the venue was mobbed. Shadow Ministers, political apparatchiks and sharp-suited corporates rubbed shoulders and traded business cards. The scent of expensive after-shave and power hung heavy in the air.
‘We didn’t come to Labour last year,’ one businessman told me, ‘but look…’ He gestured around. ‘You can just feel it. These people are going to be in government soon. We need to get to know them.’
The party conference season is a regular but superficial ritual. The circus travels north. Backs are slapped, speeches are made. Those delivering them rise – or slip – one or two rungs on the political ladder. Then everyone decamps back to Westminster and normal service resumes.
Not this year. ‘I have a 20,000 majority,’ one Tory MP told me, ‘and when I get back home, all I’m going to do is sit in my constituency for the next two years. There’s no way of saving the Government. All I can do now is save myself.’
Labour have surged to a staggering 30-point opinion poll lead. The next General Election is now Keir Starmer’s to lose
In the space of two weeks, British politics has been upended. Liz Truss’s premiership has imploded. Labour have surged to a staggering 30-point opinion poll lead. The next General Election is now Keir Starmer’s to lose.
But he can still lose it. For two main reasons. Liz Truss isn’t quite as bad a Prime Minister as her enemies like to think. And Starmer isn’t quite as good a potential Prime Minister as he and his supporters would have the country believe.
Take, for example, their respective addresses. Starmer’s was well delivered and well crafted. Truss’s was wooden and dull. But it was Truss, not Starmer, who provided the only memorable soundbite, with her critique of the ‘Anti-growth Coalition’.
It’s a clumsy phrase and lacks definition. But she has at least managed to draw a rough political dividing line between those who seek to energise and harness the British economy on behalf of ordinary working people, and those – like the environmental protesters who helpfully interrupted her – who opt to oppose it on narrow ideological grounds.
In the space of two weeks, British politics has been upended. Liz Truss’s premiership has imploded
In contrast, Starmer is still focused primarily on drawing dividing lines within his own party. His advisers were delighted with the way their decision to open conference with a lusty rendition of God Save The King was embraced by party members. ‘It sent a clear signal – Corbynism is dead,’ one told me.
But while it’s true Sir Keir has successfully moved Labour away from Corbynism, the reality is he’s only managed to travel as far as reheated Milibandism. ‘Look at the conference slogan,’ one Shadow Minister said to me. ‘It was originally supposed to be A Fresh Start. But then the Queen died and people decided it had to be dumped. That’s when Ed came swooping in with Fairer, Greener Future. That was all him.’
A second Shadow Minister pointed to Starmer’s one significant conference announcement. ‘The publicly owned green energy company. Vintage Miliband. He was in and out of Starmer’s office all summer pushing that.’
For embattled Tory advisers, Miliband’s resurrection is providing a glimmer of hope. They recognise the mini-Budget has been a car crash. But they also believe that if they can somehow shunt the wreckage off the carriageway, a clear political path stretches out in front of them.
Unlike their opponents.
‘We have a long-term economic plan,’ one No 10 source said, ‘but where is the long-term economic plan from Labour?
Keir’s energy package only covers six months, which is emblematic of an absence of long-term thinking and vision.’
Over the past fortnight that’s not represented a problem for Starmer. It’s been enough for him to simply point at the Tories, mock their ‘kamikaze’ economics, and let the polls do the rest.
But now Labour find themselves in a place they haven’t been for a decade. No longer merely His Majesty’s Opposition, they have become a government in waiting. And that is set to bring an entirely new level of scrutiny.
Last week, Labour Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves responded to Kwasi Kwarteng’s speech by claiming ‘the fact the Bank of England had to step in with a £65 billion bailout with taxpayers’ money is deeply shameful’. But it wasn’t true. In reality, only £4 billion of the £65 billion earmarked has been required to stabilise the pension funds.
The days when Labour could play fast and loose with such figures are over. Whether they like it or not, Reeves and her colleagues have now bound themselves into market orthodoxy.
By seizing on the hostile mini-Budget reaction of the IMF, OBR and the credit ratings agencies, they have effectively made these capitalist guardians the ultimate arbiters of their own party’s economic platform.
Crowd-pleasing pledges to save the NHS 24 hours from its extinction, spend on education, education and education again, or build a wind turbine on every street corner will no longer cut it.
If Starmer is to maintain his advantage, he will have to start to show where he is going to save, what he is going to axe, and how his own sums add up. Because if he doesn’t, the markets will pass an equally damning verdict on his own fiscal plan
If Starmer is to maintain his advantage, he will have to start to show where he is going to save, what he is going to axe, and how his own sums add up. Because if he doesn’t, the markets will pass an equally damning verdict on his own fiscal plan.
Liz Truss’s first month in office has, to be blunt, been a catastrophe. But there are a couple of things to be said in her favour. She has shown she is prepared to be bold. And she has demonstrated inner strength.
Visitors to the penthouse eyrie she occupied during her week in Birmingham noted her composure, but also her determination to continue to take political risks. ‘She’s shown she’s prepared to listen,’ one ally said, ‘but she still strongly believes she has the right plan to boost growth and prosperity.’
In contrast, some of Starmer’s Shadow Ministers believe the Government’s dramatic collapse has cemented his instinct to put safety first. ‘My worry is he’s going to sit back and let the Tories lose the Election. And let’s be honest, they’re currently doing a great job of it,’ one confided to me. ‘But if they somehow turn things around, what are we left with? What’s our big offer?’
In the eyes of many in his party, Starmer has essentially become Labour’s Gareth Southgate. There is no denying he has delivered success. Or that his strategy has carried his team a long way.
In the eyes of many in his party, Starmer has essentially become Labour’s Gareth Southgate. There is no denying he has delivered success. Or that his strategy has carried his team a long way
But doubts persist. That he is too defensively minded. That he remains tactically one-dimensional. That he is overly reliant on wearing down the opposing team, rather than driving forward and overwhelming them.
And there is one other thing that should give Sir Keir pause for thought. Those Labour MPs and activists rubbing their hands at the prospect of fighting an Election against a fatally wounded Liz Truss are set to be disappointed.
Because the Prime Minister either defies her critics and transforms her political fortunes, or she will be ousted.
‘She has four months,’ a Tory grandee told me. ‘If the polls haven’t moved significantly, then she will be removed. We won’t sit back and let the current level of dysfunction continue indefinitely.’
The 2022 party conference season has changed the political landscape. The next General Election is now Sir Keir’s to lose.
But if he insists on clinging to a one-goal lead, Labour’s Gareth Southgate could still find a way to do precisely that.
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