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26 June 2024

The end of Tory England

Labour may refuse to believe the polls, but regime change is coming.

By Andrew Marr

The last sprint of this endless election campaign does not make me think there will be any other conclusion than a Labour victory. But it may have moderated the scale of the coming destruction of Tory England.

Events, dear boy… Nigel Farage is now under full-scale Tory media pressure over his enthusiasm for a negotiated settlement with Vladimir Putin on Ukraine. The Daily Mail, whose readers Farage will have wanted to win over, has deployed Boris Johnson to describe his “let’s talk” proposal as “nauseating ahistorical drivel and more Kremlin propaganda”. (Farage, in response, called the former prime minister “a liar and a hypocrite”.) The Daily Telegraph, which has been exceedingly interested in Reform, gave over its letters page on 24 June to disillusioned Tories who are no longer going to back Farage because of his Ukraine position.

This is one of those issues on which the populist right, here and in the US, is out of step with mainstream conservative opinion. If this row rallies what used to be the Tory press back towards the Conservative Party, and persuades a proportion of Tory-Reform switchers to reverse-ferret again, that could have a substantial impact on dozens of seats.

It reminds us that Reform has a ceiling as well as a basement. Farage is a richly talented politician, with an eloquence none of his mainstream rivals can match. But there are barriers to the apparently endless advance of his party. One is geopolitics – not only the Putin admiration, but Farage’s personal enthusiasm for Donald Trump, also the subject of widespread suspicion in Tory Britain. Then there is patriotism: the continued existence of Nazi-sympathising Reform candidates is something Farage must eliminate quickly if he is to advance much further.

Finally, there is the cheery wildness of the Reform UK economic agenda. While many conservative-minded voters love the idea of deep spending cuts to fund deep tax cuts, they also remember the Liz Truss moment, when she flinched at the cuts side of the deal, and recoil.

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We have only days to go now, and most people will have made up their minds already. But the Tory counterattack against Reform, however tarnished the Conservative Party is by the disgraceful betting scandal – more on which shortly – may change minds.

The second shift in the weather comes courtesy of JK Rowling, Britain’s best-known author, and her assault on Keir Starmer over trans rights and women-only spaces. “As long as Labour remains dismissive and often offensive towards women fighting to retain the rights their fore-mothers thought were won for all time, I’ll struggle to support them,” she wrote.

This would be difficult for any Labour leader. Rowling is one of those very few cultural figures who are of significance to voters across generations, and used to be a big backer of Labour, and in particular Gordon Brown. But it’s tougher still because her intervention was published in the Times, part of News UK, the Murdoch-owned behemoth that Starmer’s director of communications, Matthew Doyle, has spent the past two years desperately wooing.

The Times, which Starmer had hoped would back him – and might yet – has been brutal in its assessments of his alleged character failings over women’s rights. It accuses him of being a “shapeshifter” and says the issue encapsulates the “doubts people have about his integrity”. Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun (also owned by News UK) told his readers that after the election, “we will all have to toe the line under Sir Shifty”, while “social warriors will rule the roost”. There is fury in parts of Labour’s high command at how the courting of Murdoch has gone.

On the substance, people close to Starmer make the good point that trans rights are still not a high-profile issue for many voters: “It is an obsession of the right, and an example of how out of touch they are with the electorate; this election will be fought and won on what the electors care about – the NHS and the cost of living.”

True, that. And yet… For many female voters uneasy about Starmer, as my colleague Hannah Barnes writes on page 29, this cuts through. The wider point is that the electorate Labour is targeting worries about the bullying behaviour of parts of the hard left, whether they be masked trans-campaigners pursuing women down the streets of Brighton with cries of “fascist”, Just Stop Oil protesters defacing monuments and threatening to spoil ordinary people’s summer holidays, or pro-Palestinian activists whose language tips into overt anti-Semitism.

Can Labour be trusted to stand up to such groups, or would it bend with the wind, as Kavanagh suggests? Starmer is, as one of his colleagues put it to me slightly apologetically, “a classic centrist dad” who does not have radical protest instincts. We have called him a “soft authoritarian” and I think, after his time – has he mentioned this? – running the Crown Prosecution Service, that is right.

But the party’s reflexive timidity in trying to run away from arguments that might rile voters, and the residual influence of right-on metropolitan leftism (it isn’t entirely a fiction of Tory critics), mean there is still a vagueness in its positions. Such uncertainty might influence voters looking for a reason to withhold their support from Starmer to do so.

The counter-argument is that most people in Britain are instinctively “live and let live” and slow to judge others. So a new government that was relaxed about “culture wars” issues would be more popular, not less.

As a naturally herbivorous, gentle, woodland-dwelling creature myself, I am drawn to this. But the provocateurs – those who prefer to sneer than to persuade, or who confuse the two – are still influential. The arguments around such issues aren’t really “culture wars”; this is closer to a conflict about democratic values, or a character debate. And in the final stages of the campaign, Starmer could do with being more forthright, explicit and reflective about what he really thinks.

A third factor I’ve noticed in the final stage of the campaign is the “suppressing of the vote” row. Almost every piece of Labour social media now emphasises that you won’t get change if you don’t vote for it. The key people around Starmer, including Morgan McSweeney, simply don’t believe the MRP polls giving the party 200-plus majorities, and are deeply concerned that voters who do will not bother to vote.

Pat McFadden, the politician in charge of the Labour campaign, tweets that “no way is this a done deal”. Up to a fifth of voters taking part in the MRP polls, he told the Guardian, say they have yet to make their minds up or are uncertain how to vote: “This could easily be four to five thousand people in each constituency. No wonder one MRP this week said there are 175 seats which are too close to call.”

Of course, during an election campaign, everything any politician says about polling is also a tactical message. But I am inclined to think there are real concerns inside Labour high command, even if as one cabinet minister told me at the weekend, “in the end, we will win big on the night”.

Weirdly, it seems as if the Tories believe in their imminent destruction more than Labour does. Evidence has been accumulating of the Tories concentrating their efforts on seats with huge majorities, even bullying candidates, including serving ministers, to effectively close down their own campaigns in seats with smaller majorities and send their money and help to colleagues with a better chance.

The effect of the “can’t be arsed” tendency (sorry, but it’s angrier than “can’t be bothered”) may be real, and inflated by the sheer length of this campaign and its lack of ideological edge. Rather than fighting on the case for public spending and rebuilding the public realm, Labour has retreated to the much safer territory of: “Aren’t the Tories awful?”

And, of course, they are. What may render almost everything I have written so far in this report irrelevant is the betting scandal. Along with Rishi Sunak’s brisk retreat from the D-Day beaches, it goes to the heart of what so many people think about modern Westminster Conservatism: that it has become the pithless creed of a self-interested, selfish clique enjoying the fruits of power, rather than a movement motivated by the fears and hopes of middle Britain.

I say “Westminster Conservatism” because we should remember that across the country this summer there are many local Tories plodding up and down unforgiving streets, stuffing envelopes in stuffy kitchens and vainly begging for donations. They are not disreputable or selfish people, and they’re the ones most let down by the “Why not make a few bob?” chancers near the top of their party. The trouble they have is that, for the uncommitted, the betting scandal echoes the worst days of Boris Johnson’s louche court and reminds them of the overwhelming need for regime change.

For, in the end, I think regime change is where we are heading. A natural optimist in my private, sunlit glade, I believe that Keir Starmer, Rachel Reeves, David Lammy and the rest will prove a more serious, service-focused government for more serious times – whether they get a very big majority, which will be tricky to handle, or a more modest one.

But the lesson of the final stages of this campaign is that scrutiny never stops, and the default position among the public remains a deep suspicion of the political class, whether it be Reform, the Tories or Labour. This should make us a mite cautious about 4 July – but also about what happens next.

I have mentioned before the James Kanagasooriam “sandcastle” theory of politics – that in turbulent times, a brutal tide can come rushing back in and knock flat the biggest majority. There is also John Curtice, the bespectacled Pope of forecasters, arguing that Britain is now in an era of unstable voter coalitions: “Even a very large majority is no longer a safe ticket to decade-long rule.”

Which means that, in office, Labour must move fast, deliver fast and keep a close eye on public opinion – in other words, govern as if it is still campaigning, never sitting too easy on its plush Whitehall chairs. For these have been salutary days.

[See also: Jeremy Corbyn’s last stand]

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine