New Times,
New Thinking.

Rishi Sunak, not Keir Starmer, is now the leader under pressure

A resumption of the Tory civil war would be yet another gift for the ever-fortunate Labour leader.

By Andrew Marr

Labour up, more than they expected to be. The Tories down, with a worse result than they privately expected. And the other parties, the Lib Dems and the Greens, doing well and benefiting from a general anti-Conservative mood. The country does not agree with Rishi Sunak that the page has been turned on the Johnson and Truss years.

The country may not be wildly enthusiastic about Keir Starmer but they think he’s good enough, and they’re not remotely scared of him. As of mid-afternoon, Labour’s projected national lead over the Tories is nine points – probably not quite enough for an overall majority. But Starmer has been telling friends Labour are winning in all the key battleground seats for the general election. He will be delighted.

I say “the country” and of course, literally, that is nonsense. These were local elections not national ones and only covered parts of England, not the whole UK. So we shower everything with salt; but we give thanks for the best real-world data available to us.

Labour have done well in all the right places – Stoke-on-Trent, Medway, Southampton and swathes of seats across the West Midlands. But the midday assessment, while dire for the Tories, would not yet give Labour enough for an overall majority in parliament.

And so the narrative alters; and so the dance changes direction. In the weeks before these elections, pressure seemed to be building on Starmer. Little local difficulties, such as the Sue Gray tangle, were beginning to combine with rising unease about quite so many pledges being ditched – the abolition of university tuition fees being the latest – and, of course, falling poll leads. All of this, until today, suggested a summer of fire-fighting for Starmer.

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At the same time, Rishi Sunak was riding relatively high. The glow of the Northern Ireland deal was still visible; he appeared to be enjoying his jousts at Prime Minister’s Questions far more than Starmer; and Tory MPs had a slight spring in their steps for the first time in years.

[See also: The 2023 May local elections – what to watch out for]

But now that so many people have spoken across swathes of England, this essentially SW1 narrative is exposed as out of touch. And because everything is connected, we will probably see a different political mood between now and the summer recess. Starmer’s iron grip on his party will tighten; the parliamentary left will remain almost entirely silent; and he now has the freedom to move further on policy if he wants to.

For Sunak, it’s something of a nightmare. Back at the start of the year, it seemed that these local elections would prove the moment when cantankerous, Brexit-fixated Tories would revolt against him. Somewhere, in a lair deep below ground, Boris Johnson’s chthonic will to power would flicker into life again. A rheumy eye would revolve and before they knew it, the Tories would be thrown back into the psychodrama they thought they had left behind last year. But then, as rebellions withered away – only 22 Conservative MPs voted against the Windsor Framework in March – it seemed that none of this would unfold.

Well, now it just might. Anti-Sunak forces are gathering. The National Conservatives’ London conference, highlighted by the New Statesman recently, is little more than a week away. Before that, Peter Cruddas’s Johnsonite insurgency, the Conservative Democratic Organisation, gathers in Bournemouth.

Now, of course, it might well be that self-restraint and moderation are the order of the day. But if not – if this turns into real trouble for the Prime Minister – that would be catastrophic news not just for him but for the Conservative government.

First, it would distract from Sunak’s five pledges – at a time when, in any case, the job of halving inflation (pledge one) is looking harder, and when the NHS remains mired in crisis (see pledge four, on cutting waiting lists). Second it provides an opening for Starmer who, quite naturally, would much prefer to talk about the chaos of the Johnson and Truss years than about Sunak; I can see a tacit alliance between the angrier parts of the new right-wing media ecosystem and Labour, in forcing a return to the personalities and obsessions that Sunak wants to get as far away from as possible.

Finally, and most importantly, the public is utterly fed up of the psychodrama. People might have accepted it wrapped up as a Netflix box set, but as a way of trying to run this country it is utterly bust and the nation wants no more of it.

I have argued before that Starmer is proving a lucky opposition leader – think of the SNP’s implosion – and a rash of anti-Tory tactical voting could be a further example. But there is more to say. So far, it seems that Labour has done very well but, based on projected vote shares, perhaps not quite well enough to form a majority government. Given where the party started three years ago, that itself is an extraordinary achievement by Starmer.

Yet talking to senior members of the government and opposition MPs as well, there is a growing belief that we are probably heading for a hung parliament. After 13 years and presumably the loss of dozens of seats, that means the chances of a Tory-led government after the next election are very low. But it poses quite severe questions for Labour which, if mishandled, could again change the narrative and the direction of the dance.

An important part of this week’s story has been the advance of the Liberal Democrats – perhaps part of the growing, leaderless, inchoate national movement which is the “not the Tories” party. One Conservative minister said to me last week that if Labour and the Liberal Democrats were shrewd enough and brave enough to form an anti-Tory electoral pact, “we would be annihilated… Luckily for us, they aren’t.” Ed Davey and Starmer get on well personally; Labour members would like voting reform; but thus far it seems the leadership is resolutely against change.

Then there is Scotland. The self-disembowelment of the SNP aside, support for independence remains strong, particularly among younger voters. The SNP leadership’s strategy is not stupid. They are waiting and hoping for a further tightening in the national polls between Labour and the Tories. At this point, they can say to Scottish voters – if you want leverage, if you want real influence in a hung parliament, you have to vote for us. Then, of course, the Conservatives pick up that message and attack Labour for being prepared to do a deal with the nationalists and break up the UK. While untrue, this will play quite well with parts of middle England and might cause a further tightening in the polls. It is a kind of malign corkscrew Starmer needs to work hard to avoid.

In sum, these election results point to politics becoming more turbulent and unpredictable, not less; but they also suggest that by the end of next year, we will no longer have a Conservative government.

[See also: Why Labour is winning back Leave voters]

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