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19 January 2022

Events have conspired to give Labour another chance. Will Keir Starmer seize it?

As we witness the grand unravelling of the cult of Boris Johnson, complacency will not cut it: Labour needs to be bold.

By Philip Collins

There comes a point in the course of a government when the party in power starts to look more than mildly deranged. The appointment of Nadine Dorries as Culture Secretary was a tip-off, and the reports that the BBC licence fee will come to an abrupt end in 2027 was the confirmation. The intricate arguments about the broadcasting market will in time be interpreted in the popular mind as a needless government campaign to abolish David Attenborough, and that is, to say the least of it, not very advisable.

The moment of evident derangement is, at the same time, the moment of maximum opportunity for an ambitious opposition. In a recent Opinium poll, not only were the Tories 10 percentage points behind Labour, but Boris Johnson’s personal approval had fallen below the worst numbers ever recorded by Theresa May. In the latest Redfield & Wilton poll, Labour had taken a lead of 13 points, its largest since 2013. Labour is now polling 43 per cent and the Conservatives are languishing on 30 per cent. The shift in the polls is significant, and feels like an abiding change, not a fleeting verdict.

We really might be witnessing the grand unravelling of the cult of Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister won an 80-seat majority in 2019 by being a Brexit man who was not, unlike all those staid characters in parliament, really a politician at all. The disastrous consequence of his behaviour during lockdown is that he suddenly conforms to the public’s low view of all politicians. The moment that more recent Tory voters start to think that Johnson is no different from the rest of the political class, he is in trouble.

In fact, someone who has disappointed voters may be punished even harder than one in whom no faith was ever placed. The political charge of Brexit has now gone too, which helps to explain the Culture War Secretary’s ludicrous attack on the funding model of the BBC.

[see also: Dominic Cummings won’t be the last disenchanted No 10 official to cause trouble for Boris Johnson]

It might be thought, then, that Labour could sit tight and let the Tories implode. Indeed, that might be enough. Perhaps we are approaching the moment at which the public decides that a decade and a half of the Tories is long enough. No party has ever won, or partly won, five consecutive general electoral victories since the resumption of two-party British politics after the Second World War. The Tories have burned through their talent and are left with a policy-free C-team. They have already, in their wisdom, provided three prime ministers, two of whom their members put into Downing Street before the electorate was consulted. It feels like we might be nearing the end of their time. When that happens, when enough of the public is simply fed up, it’s over. It might be true, in a way, that this would be more a case of Johnson doing badly than Keir Starmer doing brilliantly, but so what?

The argument for complacency and staying quiet goes no further than that, though. Perhaps a safety-first victory can be won by Labour, but the approach is, paradoxically, fraught with risk. There is a small chance that if Labour does not step into the political space vacated by Johnson, the Prime Minister might recover. Perhaps his obituaries have been written too soon. Time may heal; memories may fade. If Labour does not present a compelling alternative, then perhaps the new Tory vote could offer Johnson one final chance at redemption. A greater risk for Labour is that the Tories once again dispatch their leader and that Rishi Sunak is able to restore a sense of calm and purpose in a more traditional Conservative administration. While Sunak is not exactly box office, he could perhaps win a solid victory, as John Major did in 1992.

Even if the Conservatives cannot reinvent themselves yet again, a cautious approach from Labour might produce only a slender victory or put the party into government with the consent of other parties. This both hampers what can be done in office and makes the prospect of a second victory less likely. Harold Wilson spent too much of his time in Downing Street with an eye on the next election, forced to use his low political cunning to combat internal rivals. A small victory is better than no victory – especially for such an unsuccessful party as Labour – but it’s not the road to the next new Jerusalem.

There are good reasons, then, for Labour to be bolder. The critique of the Conservatives has landed and the public is starting to take a second look at Starmer’s party. This is in itself a political achievement, but Labour now needs to win back a lost reputation for economic competence, as well as develop a reform programme for the public services. There are signs, in the early speeches of the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, that Labour is edging towards some tougher positions based on value for money. Sadly, not many people spend their weekends perusing political speeches, so this shift in attitude needs to be painted in primary colours.

At the time of writing, Reeves is due to give a speech in Bury, Greater Manchester on 20 January. There is a statue in the town of Robert Peel, the great Red Wall Tory. Peel was prepared to split the Tories for the cause of lowering the price of bread for the people. In 1846 the interests of the merchants and the interests of the public led to a fatal political collision. Today events have conspired to give the Labour Party another chance. When we come to do the audit of the next election, it is likely that the next few months will be found to have counted.

[see also: Why Boris Johnson’s No 10 is so dysfunctional]

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This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party