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4 January 2024

Donald Trump’s return is an opportunity for Starmer

A second Trump term could reset British politics to Labour’s advantage.

By David Gauke

The date of the general election – as opposed to the result – is, naturally enough, a topic of much speculation for the new year. Though the opposition parties want to raise the prospects of a May election – partly so that the “time for a change” mood is intensified – the likelihood remains as before: it will almost certainly be in the autumn of 2024. If anything has changed it is that November (the 14th is increasingly spoken of) now looks more likely than October.

In the US, of course, the date is set (5 November). The result, however, remains in doubt. Only a few months ago the Democrats were confident that Donald Trump was unelectable, but that looks very far from the case today. The implications of a second Trump presidency are, understandably, causing a deep sense of foreboding for anyone in the US who cares about the rule of law and its democratic institutions.

I wrote last spring about how the likely proximity of US and UK elections would cause difficulties for both the Conservatives and Labour. The Tories would be split over Trump (depressingly, at least some candidates will be enthusiastic about him) while both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer will have to calibrate their stances towards Trump so as to sound strong and authentic without necessarily burning all bridges.

The problems are greater for Sunak, especially if the US election has yet to happen when we go to the polls. If America has already voted, the focus may shift to how the UK responds to a Trump presidency, which is a tricky issue for both sides, rather than the question of who candidates support. This is not a decisive factor but it points to a November UK election. 

The return to the White House of Trump would not just be an issue for the general election campaign. If it happens, it will be one of the most consequential moments for whoever is in power in the UK. Our politicians should be thinking deeply about it, not least Keir Starmer. It is perfectly possible that the Labour leader’s record as prime minister will be defined by how he responds to a second Trump term.

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The former president would have been returned to office notwithstanding his refusal to accept the previous election result and his supporters’ attempt to overturn it through violent means. He would have won having argued that the 2020 election was stolen and that the numerous criminal charges brought against him (and, possibly by then, convictions) exposed not his own misconduct but an abuse of power by his political opponents. He would be demanding vengeance and pointing to an electoral mandate that would justify delivering it. He would no longer be constrained by “grown-ups” – former generals and business people capable of outwitting a lazy and incompetent administrator – but would now be surrounded by true believers. The first Trump term was bad enough; the sequel could be much worse.

A Trump return would be a disaster for the West. But it also creates opportunities for Starmer.

The most obvious issue is Ukraine. In terms of military and financial aid, the US has been the key player in supporting Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression. That backing would likely end under Trump. The UK, along with its European allies, would have to decide whether to increase supplies to Ukraine or force the country to sue for peace. Any such peace is unlikely to be sustainable; Vladimir Putin will come back for more. The Baltic states, in particular, will be nervous given that Nato membership is unlikely to count for much in terms of collective security. This could be a humiliation or the moment at which Europe – including the UK – stands up to be counted in terms of its defence, no longer dependent upon the US, which would have become at best an unreliable ally.

Such a moment would have wider significance for how we see ourselves. For most of us, the US has always been our closest security ally. A Trump presidency may make us feel more European.

Our party politics may also be transformed. A Sunak defeat and a Trump victory would certainly encourage some Conservatives to believe that a more wholeheartedly populist approach would bring electoral success. Starmer might fancy his chances against a Trump tribute act, but he should ask himself if there is more that could be done to prevent the UK from going down the US path. The argument that first-past-the-post electoral systems increase the chances of populists gaining untrammelled power is likely to gain currency. Constitutional and electoral reform might become a live issue.

There are even some economic opportunities. If Trump creates a hostile environment for the “liberal elite”, some of them may decide to move elsewhere. The UK could provide a warm welcome to talented figures from the entertainment, tech and finance sectors uncomfortable living in Trumpland (assuming, of course, that we do not make our tax system too uncompetitive).

At this point, this is all conjecture. But as Keir Starmer prepares to move into Downing Street in the autumn, he should also be preparing for Trump’s return to the White House a few months later. It might just be the making of Prime Minister Starmer.

[See also: What are the key questions Labour needs to answer in 2024?]

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