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4 July 2022

Is Keir Starmer bold enough to succeed?

Tinkering is not an option – the Labour leader needs a radical programme to undo the damage wrought by the Conservatives.

By Martin Fletcher

I spent last week in a remote Scottish croft with no mobile or radio signal, no internet and no access to the news. It was a joy to share simple pursuits with old friends, and not to spend each day feeling outraged. Then, at the weekend, I re-emerged to find our Dear Great Leader mired in yet another scandal – his seemingly knowing appointment of a serially accused groper (and Boris Johnson loyalist), Christopher Pincher, as the deputy chief whip.

My return to the new normal was beyond depressing, but I took heart from the fact that our debased Prime Minister and his unspeakable government have surely passed the point of no return. 

How can they possibly recover when they are drowning in sleaze? When the economy is in free fall and they have no plausible plan to rescue it? When there is no seat in the country they could still be confident of holding in a by-election now that the electorate has embraced tactical voting? When Tory backbenchers and grassroots activists are openly revolting against a leader with an approval rating of minus 45 per cent, and when even former Johnson boosters like Oliver Dowden are jumping ship?

The scandals will not miraculously stop. Johnson will not suddenly cease to be a shameless conman and become fit to govern. The falling of scales from people’s eyes is not a process that can be reversed. Trust, once lost, is almost impossible to regain. A narrative, once it takes root, is almost impossible to change. Ridicule, once gained, is almost impossible to shake off. Johnson talks of governing into the 2030s, but he’ll be lucky to survive the year.  

Even if he is replaced, it is hard to see the Conservatives recovering sufficiently to win an outright majority in 2024. Its ministers and MPs have been too compromised, too corrupted and too perjured by their slavish support for a manifestly rotten prime minister. The parliamentary party will still be dominated by zealots, most moderates having been long ago purged. The Tories have forfeited their right to be seen as the party of law and order, fiscal responsibility and pragmatism. And without Jeremy Corbyn as a unifying bogeyman, which potential successor could hope to resurrect the improbable coalition of traditional southern Tories and disgruntled working-class northerners that Johnson stitched together in 2019?

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My optimism is seriously qualified, however, because the Conservatives will bequeath their successors the ultimate poisoned chalice. 

Their legacy will be a ruined economy, vast national debt, extreme poverty, desperate inequality, disintegrating public services and militant unions demanding huge pay rises. They will leave behind a country riven by the bitter social divisions between Leavers and Remainers, progressives and conservatives, the metropolitan and rural, the young and the old that Johnson has so deliberately and irresponsibly stoked for narrow partisan advantage. They will pass on a rampant Scottish nationalism, a dangerously destabilised Northern Ireland, fraught relations with Europe and America, a diminished international standing, a gathering environmental crisis and, quite possibly, an ongoing war in Ukraine.

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[See also: Why Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak finally lost patience with Boris Johnson]

In all probability, moreover, it will be a minority Labour government, deeply inexperienced and dependent on the formal or informal support of the Liberal Democrats, that will inherit this epic litany of troubles. Indeed if Keir Starmer (assuming he survives “beergate”) secures power merely by dint of the Tories imploding, his government would seem destined to fail – and heaven help Britain then.

To have any chance of success, Starmer needs urgently to develop a robust programme for government just as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair did during their years in opposition; a programme whose main points would be agreed in advance with the Lib Dems, could secure a popular mandate at the next election and would give his government a clear sense of purpose and direction amid the inevitable storms ahead.

And that programme should start, it seems to me, not with detailed policy prescriptions, important as those are, but with wholesale reform of a political system that Johnson and his cronies will have left utterly broken and discredited. 

That reform package should include the replacement of Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system with proportional representation so that everyone’s vote counts, consensus-building replaces confrontational tribal politics, and never again can a small sect within a ruling party elected by a minority of voters impose on the country a constitutional change so vast, divisive and disastrous as Brexit. 

It should include the creation of a new, truly independent ethics watchdog with the power to enforce a sweeping new set of standards in public life, covering everything from lobbying and political donations to veracity and the awarding of jobs, honours and public contracts.

It should also consider whether the time has come for the UK to have a written constitution, Johnson having so thoroughly trashed what the constitutional historian Peter Hennessy calls the “good chaps” theory of government – the idea that those in power share a common sense of decency and restraint. A written constitution could, for starters, restore an untrammelled right to vote, to protest, to seek judicial review and to claim asylum. 

Such reforms would entail Starmer surrendering certain powers – something politicians seldom do. But without them he could not hope to regain the public trust that his government would desperately need. Without them he could not hope to convince a jaded, cynical electorate that Labour would put the national interest before its own. Remember how Gordon Brown so brilliantly signalled a new beginning by giving the Bank of England the power to set interest rates just days after Blair’s New Labour ended 18 years of Conservative government in 1997?

We live in a time of extraordinary national crisis and upheaval. Tinkering is not an option. Bold, radical actions are required to restore Britain’s fortunes. Starmer may lack Johnson’s flamboyance and outsized personality, but if he can summon the courage to seize the moment it is he, not Johnson, who might just prove the truly transformative prime minister.

[See also: Keir Starmer must fill Labour’s foreign policy vacuum]