The number of Conservative politicians praising Keir Starmer is growing. Last week Claire Perry O’Neill, who was a minister under Theresa May, applauded Starmer for his “sober, fact-driven, competent political leadership”. George Osborne, that heartthrob of the left, has enthused about the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves. “She is clearly intelligent and serious,” he told the Times recently. Or take party grandee Ken Clarke who told Andrew Marr’s LBC show that “it’s probably about time the social democrats had a turn and give us a rest”. Nick Boles, a Tory MP until 2019 and a close acolyte of David Cameron, went so far to vote for Labour in last year’s local elections.
The contagion has spread to the parliamentary party, too. Christian Wakeford, the MP for Bury South, defected to Labour at the height of partygate last year. And as Kevin Maguire wrote in his New Statesman column last week, more Red Wall Tories are considering crossing the floor.
These conversions are partly a reaction to the dismal polling position of the Conservative Party. While Rishi Sunak may have ended much of the internal chaos of the past nine months, the party is still on track for a landslide defeat at the next election.
Labour isn’t the only alternative the Conservatives are eyeing up. Tory MPs are in so much despair about their electoral fortunes that they actively joke about joining the tiny Social Democratic Party. On the right of the party, several Tory MPs are in talks with Reform UK – the successor to the Brexit Party – about defection, a party source said last week. And the constant chatter surrounding the possible return of Boris Johnson won’t do anything to win back the confidence of those centrists besotted with Starmer.
For Labour, this praise is a sign that Starmer has successfully “detoxified” the party’s image after the Corbyn years. But is he still an electable radical, as so many Labour members thought he was when they elected him, or has he shifted to the centre?
Part of that process of detoxification has been Labour’s courtship of business. On Tuesday (10 January) Starmer spent another working breakfast with several chief executives and he is going to the World Economic Forum in Davos next week. Shadow cabinet ministers are sent to weekly schmoozing sessions with business leaders around London. Donations have soared. Suits populated the party’s conference in Liverpool in October. But courting businesses doesn’t necessarily erase Starmer’s left-wing credentials. After all, John McDonnell made a concerted effort to reassure the City that a Corbyn government wouldn’t crash the economy.
To his critics, Starmer’s Tory fan club will be a sign that he has sold out his leftist principles in the naked pursuit of power. To his supporters, it shows the Labour Party is taken seriously again after shedding the more extreme elements of its programme. The key question is whether this is a successful marketing campaign or a symptom of Labour’s shift to the centre. The answer is probably both.