New Times,
New Thinking.

The biggest risk facing Labour

Rather than people flooding to the Tories, the danger is a quiet scepticism which means them not voting at all.

By Andrew Marr

So it starts; and sweet Lord, it’s going to be tetchy. Listening to the Prime Minister’s first round of media interviews in his unexpected and probably doomed final campaign, the snippiness, the snarkiness, the maximum tetch was unignorable. He hates every second of this. Quite soon, the rest of us will as well.

It isn’t just that Rishi Sunak has not enjoyed the experience of political leadership – though people who know him well say that is so. It is also that he has gambled on this July election in a way that has set even many of his supporters in the Conservative Party into a state of consternation and anger. About two hours before his drenched announcement in Downing Street, I was assured by one of his senior ministers: “Andrew, of course we’re not going to do it now. We’re not that silly.”

And indeed, whatever his faults and strengths, the Prime Minister is not silly. So what, really, is the thinking? Don’t forget that he has thrown away the prospect of months of relentless and occasionally forensic analysis of Labour policy by the Tory press; months of fundraising; the Rwanda scheme actually up and running; the prospect of another tax-cutting fiscal event.

The answer, I think, is that in all of these cases, Sunak has realised that for him, things can only get worse. A core anti-Labour message, road-tested immediately after the local election results, was that Starmer was heading for an unstable coalition, leaning on flaky environmentalist Liberal Democrats and anti-British Scottish nationalists to cling on to power.

But day after day of 20-point-plus poll leads, and the success of the Labour campaign in all the parts of England the party most needs to win, made this notion of a “coalition of chaos” increasingly implausible. You can’t really attack your opponent for being weak when they are so strongly ahead. So that was out.

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Next, the economy. Although inflation has fallen fairly close to the Bank of England’s 2 per cent target, many economists expect an uptick over the summers and there is no real confidence that interest rates will come down then. Ministers concede that actual voters feel no better off or more confident. 

Meanwhile, the Treasury has run spending so close to the edge that the prospect of a generous tax giveaway that would not spook the markets has receded. If you want a measure of how confident Sunak is about the economic argument saving him, reflect on the fact he was prepared to blow out the good inflation news with this election announcement.

As to those furious Conservative MPs, it may well be that the Prime Minister, so frustrated at the refusal of the country to listen to him and so seething at the habitual disloyalty of his own party, simply thinks, “I’ve had enough of this. Sod the lot of you. If you lose your seats, my friends, you brought it on yourselves.” If we never forget the importance of personal emotion in our own lives, why should we underrate it in politics?

In terms of big current issues, all this really leaves is immigration. Speaking to LBC and the BBC this morning, Sunak conceded that no deportation flights would take off for Rwanda before the election. This almost certainly means that no flights will take off for Rwanda ever, since Labour is committed to immediately scrapping the system.

I deduce that ministers expected both scenes of absolute chaos and Ealing comedy incompetence as the scheme started; and also, a further big influx of boats during the better summer weather; and had therefore decided that “Rwanda” was better as a theoretical idea than an accomplished fact. It will still be hugely influential in the election rhetoric but as rhetoric, not as accomplished fact.

Many years ago, when following Neil Kinnock around on the election trail, I was admonished in the battle bus by the journalist Richard Littlejohn for asking questions that were too long: “Our job is to sit at the back throwing bottles,” he said. Anyway, that’s enough bottles for this piece. Where are the vulnerabilities for Labour?

The biggest and most obvious one is the narrative itself, that of a big Labour victory in the making. Voters are naturally suspicious of landslide governments, with the cockiness that brings. They may be looking at the polls and thinking, hmm, there is already a sense of entitlement creeping in here; better not help them too much. The danger is not people flooding to the Tories so much as a quiet scepticism that means them not voting at all.

As it happens, the Labour politician who gives the least sense of cockiness or entitlement is Starmer himself. At yesterday’s PMQs, as election rumours swirled round Westminster, he was in his non-partisan “father of the country” mode, focusing on the infected blood scandal and warmly welcoming the quadruple amputee Tory MP Craig Mackinlay back to the chamber. More of this please, more intent listening; and as I wrote before the announcement, more of a big-picture, better-Britain vision.

In a curious way, the top of the Labour Party is reforming itself in a pattern reminiscent of the Blair years. There is Starmer as a more normal, less charismatic Blair for harder times; Rachel Reeves as a Gordon Brown with less egalitarian fire and less angst; Angela Rayner playing John Prescott, and as tied into the union soul of the Labour movement as he was.

History never repeats itself. But after the Westminster spasms of anger and confusion that led to Wednesday evening’s surprise election announcement, I feel mainly relief and guarded optimism.

Parliamentary democracy has survived for so long because it tends, albeit later rather than sooner, to correct its own mistakes. For all the hard years and harder choices ahead, and all the tetch of the next few weeks, that is, broadly speaking, what is happening now.

[See also: Why Conservatives are furious with Rishi Sunak]

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