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26 January 2022

As bruised as Boris Johnson is, Keir Starmer’s Labour knows he is still a formidable foe

Starmer’s strengthened party would still be better off removing the Prime Minister than facing him in another election.

By Stephen Bush

Under Keir Starmer, the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) have been opened up to Christian Wakeford, the Bury South MP first elected under Conservative colours in 2019, but remain closed to Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer’s immediate predecessor as leader. Depending on your perspective, that is a sign either of a party that has lost its principles, or one that has recovered them.

For Starmer, Wakeford’s defection is a personal triumph. The group of voters that most worries Labour strategists – the group that continues to stand by the Tories in the polls and in focus groups – is Brexit-supporting men over retirement age. In Wakeford’s case, well, two out of three ain’t bad. (“If only he were over 65,” one shadow cabinet minister joked to me.) It is also a source of particular personal satisfaction for the Labour leader that an MP who represents a constituency with one of the largest Jewish populations outside London, and who co-chairs the all-party parliamentary group on British Jews, feels comfortable switching sides.

But Starmer’s critics have a rather different view. That Wakeford – who supported Leave in the EU referendum and voted for Boris Johnson to become leader of the Conservatives – feels comfortable in Labour is, for some of Starmer’s internal opponents, evidence that the party now stands for nothing. It means taking one of Labour’s target seats – the Tory majority in Bury South is just 402 – and handing it to a politician who, until 19 January, had been a Conservative for many years.

The trouble for Starmer’s critics is that, these days, even their talking points reveal their weakness. Arguing that Wakeford’s defection looks more like opportunism than a principled position requires you to believe that Starmer’s Labour will make gains in seats such as Bury South in the next election. Loudly advocating for Corbyn to be readmitted to the PLP, as one member of the Labour left despaired to me recently, “just demoralises our people”. Although the exodus of Corbyn-supporting members from the party is a financial headache for the present leadership, it is a bigger logistical one for Starmer’s opponents, who are weakened in internal contests and elections as a result.

Although not every member of Starmer’s inner circle would respond quite as boldly as Rachel Reeves – who said in an interview published on 19 January that falling membership in her constituency was a “good thing”, because those leaving should never have been in the Labour Party – that sentiment is widely shared.

[see also: Is Wes Streeting the next Labour leader?]

MPs report that Starmer, enjoying a strengthened position within the party and a lead in the polls, is in good spirits, which contributes to his confident performances in the House of Commons. His one-liner on 19 January sums up how the Labour leader sees things: “The Labour Party has changed – and so has the Conservative Party.” Labour is no longer haunted by the divides of the recent past, and the Conservatives are not the all-conquering electoral force they once were.

Or are they? One of the few constants over the nearly 12 years that the Conservatives have been in power is that the party has managed to keep changing. One of Starmer’s frustrations has been Johnson’s attempt to run away from the decisions made by previous Tory administrations in the past decade. Among shadow cabinet ministers, Jeremy Hunt is the name mentioned most often when asked who they fear as Johnson’s replacement, because he has been on the back benches throughout the pandemic and could once again help the Tories present themselves as a changed party.

“Our biggest problem,” one shadow cabinet minister told me, “is that the pandemic allows [the Tories] to reset expectations and run as a first-term government, and Hunt would aggravate that.” Labour MPs less supportive of Starmer also name Hunt, albeit for less flattering reasons. As one Corbynite put it to me: “Our dividing line [with the Conservatives] is look, I’m a boring dad who isn’t going to do anything radical or scary. Well, Hunt’s also a boring dad and he’ll have the media on-side.”

Despite his popularity in the polls, Labour is less spooked by Rishi Sunak, the bookies’ favourite to replace the embattled Prime Minister. The party thinks a Sunak-led government would retreat from some of the Johnsonian positions that have proved troublesome for Labour: it would, at least, be more equivocal on the net zero target, and keener on renewed austerity. Part of Johnson’s value to the Conservatives, some Labour MPs believe, is that he makes it harder for Labour to avoid weighing into culture wars issues because austerity is not up for discussion. “We can argue: here’s why the detail of our plans on climate are more serious than theirs,” says one shadow cabinet minister, “but that would, of course, be easier, if [the Tories] were to retreat on the net zero target.”

In that respect, Labour MPs have a lot in common with Tory whips: despite their lengthy list of grudges against Johnson, they believe he is the Conservatives’ best electoral asset. As bruised as he is, Labour would be better off removing him than facing him in another election.

Would a Sunak government be preferable? It would mean Labour could fight the next election on its traditional themes: public services, the environment, the state of the NHS. But it might also mean that the contest has the traditional outcome: a Labour defeat and victory for a revitalised Conservative Party.

[see also: Boris Johnson is entering his moment of greatest peril]

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This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed