“Squeaky-bum time” is one of the less appetising phrases of football-origin. It goes back to Alex Ferguson acidly mocking Arsenal 20 years ago, referring to the sound of someone under pressure, nervously fidgeting on a plastic chair. But it’s hard to think of a better metaphor for Labour in the months ahead. Calm under pressure and nerveless patience are going to be needed; because that polling gap is going to close.
Indeed, it is already closing. Data published by Deltapoll on 20 March found a sharp rise in the Tory performance, with voting intention for the Conservatives at 35 per cent against Labour’s 45 per cent. It might not seem much but that’s a big jump on the mid-March polling, an overall shrinking of the Labour lead by 13 points. It’s unlikely to have been prompted by Jeremy Hunt’s spring Budget, as it received lacklustre coverage.
No, it looks as if something else is going on – to be precise, it looks as if Rishi Sunak is going on. There has been a rise in net approval for the Prime Minister since February. The air of competence noted by spectators in Westminster in recent weeks is rippling around the country. Politicians often claim polling doesn’t matter, but that is nonsense. It’s the lens that affects the behaviour of the observed. In this case, it helps Sunak fend off party divisions and ought to make Keir Starmer move faster.
Let’s start with the big tactical challenge for Labour. It seems that the party is preparing well for government. Starmer’s “five missions” are easily mocked as dry political blather, the 2020s equivalent to Blair-Brown Third Way triangulation. Yet, as Starmer notes, the five missions matter because they are focused on long-term change. Labour is having conversations with business and public-sector Britain, which should turn the missions into clear policies later this year.
A bias towards governing, and against politics, is deeply ingrained in the Labour leader’s character. Starmer has an appetite for concrete change, having worked as a barrister and an adviser to the Northern Ireland Policing Board and run a large organisation as director of Public Prosecutions. He never sounds more convincing than when he is expressing frustration with the opposition, a life conducted with rhetoric and lost votes.
So what’s the challenge? It’s that until now, confronted by the entertaining political hooliganism of Boris Johnson, and the wild flurry of ideological merriment that was Liz Truss, Starmer has almost been able to leave the serious political argument to one side. What would Labour do? Well… put the country together again. Is Labour up to that? Well… could it possibly do worse than the Tories?
This approach of thinking more about how to govern, and less about the grubby mess of day-to-day politics, was exemplified by Starmer’s appointment of Sue Gray as his chief of staff. Having someone so experienced with the workings of Whitehall would immeasurably improve the first six months of a new Labour government: a masterstroke. But having conversations with the civil servant who led the partygate inquiry, and then offering them a job working for the opposition, has given Johnson another weapon against those trying to bring him down: not a masterstroke.
With Sunak hurtling pell-mell – doing deals with everyone from the EU, to Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden, to trade unions – Labour needs to acknowledge that it is now in a different competition. It’s true that the Tories can’t fight the next election on their overall record: the miserable growth, the collapsing public services, the atmosphere of rancorous national division. That simple Labour (Reaganite) question, “Do you feel better off?” is potent.
But that’s not what the Conservatives are going to fight on. They’re drawing a thick line between the era of Brexit, Johnson and Truss, and the government since then under Sunak. Again, if you want evidence, look at the quiet brutality of the Prime Minister’s refusal to help Johnson in his travails with the Privileges Committee. Whatever the “ultras” think, Sunak would prefer to risk Tory rebellions and anger in the Johnsonite media than risk contamination with the recent past.
Sunak is right. The country was exhausted by Brexit and the Tory feuds, and the country has started to notice a change. Sunak’s five-point plan may be more modest and short-term than Starmer’s five missions, but he is picking off his priorities one-by-one in real time. He is also pursuing a rare media strategy. He is almost never seen in public except in unconvincing, overly chirpy social media clips. He’s gone to ground, unusual for a prime minister. Privately he focuses on policy and subduing possible rebellions with a relentless undercover charm offensive on Tory MPs, from breakfasts to drinks parties in No 10.
“He is working incredibly hard,” says one friend. “But he has worked out that if you keep the Tory benches united and get the policies broadly right, favourable media coverage will follow.” As a political interviewer, I find this offensive – but right now, it also seems to be working.
It won’t work forever. Of the problems Sunak faces, I think the least is now Johnson. Despite the former prime minister’s latest theatrics, Sunak’s record is already strong enough for few Tory MPs to actively want a change in leader. Johnson has thus far proved a kind of modern English version of the Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell – fomenter of popular, genuine dissent, twister and bender of parliamentary rules, a leader let down by a reckless private life, inconsistent and both adored and hated.
I’m aware of how offensive this analogy could be to many. But couldn’t parallels be drawn between Brexit, as a huge constitutional challenge for Westminster, and Irish home rule? Parnell eventually split his party. On balance, I don’t think Johnson will split his. But his survival at the centre of British politics would be a bigger problem for Sunak than for Starmer.
The small boats policy, even after Suella Braverman’s triumphalist trip to Rwanda – during which she shamefully excluded all media outlets who might be critical – is a bigger longer-term problem. It was conceived in order to embarrass the Labour Party rather than to work, and it will unravel.
None of that is going to make the next period in politics easier for the opposition. A closing of the polls, which we should expect to happen, will put more internal pressure on Starmer. The left will focus on his abandonment of the socialist pledges he made to get the job – without ever acknowledging that this widened his appeal. He will have less time to think about how to govern in 2024, and have to think harder about how to get there.
Given that he’s only been in the job for three years, the advance Starmer has made is extraordinary. But he is now in a different kind of competition, facing a more formidable and energetic opponent in Sunak. The two party leaders share some similarities. Neither is naturally charismatic, both are serious men interested in policy detail, who lean heavily on a financial ally (Jeremy Hunt and Rachel Reeves), and neither really seems to enjoy the cut-and-thrust of party competition.
But it is a proper fight for the country’s future now. Labour comes to it with some useful advantages. The implosion of the SNP is a stroke of luck for Starmer. More broadly, an era that requires the state to be stronger is good for a party that has historically believed in the strong state.
But these may not be enough. Starmer needs to rapidly accelerate Labour’s policy development. Above all, he must show how, at a time of tight financial and taxation constraints, Labour can achieve sustained growth. He needs to find a stronger, brighter language of national renewal. And, as the competition narrows between the parties, Labour mustn’t panic. After all it’s only squeaky-bum time.
[See also: Is the SNP heading for a split?]
This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink