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10 July 2024

Britain’s shock of the new

Keir Starmer’s people are in charge now – and the mood in the country is changed.

By Andrew Marr

A big win changes the facts. So, what is our new reality? As the Keir Starmer ascendancy boots up its laptops, what style of national leadership is coming? These first days in power have felt, already, distinctively different. There is an atmosphere, a mood, a “something” with a sharp, clear smell that is hard to describe.

The shock of the new is embedded in Starmer’s unflorid warnings of “tough decisions”, “raw honesty” and being “restless for change”. It’s visible in the calm demeanour of an older man comfortable with authority, who speaks unselfconsciously of “my” government pressing ahead with “my missions”. Many around him have noted how much more relaxed he seems now he’s in Downing Street.

For all the analysis of Labour’s strikingly low share of the vote, 33.8 per cent, hatching such a large proportion of MPs, 63 per cent – a third for two thirds – the new Prime Minister shows in public no flicker of unease about the reality of his parliamentary mandate.

The changed atmosphere is heard from the voices of a comprehensive school-educated cabinet still coming to terms with its victory – there was much laughter and jostling as the groups of just-appointed and still-to-be-appointed ministers mingled in neighbouring rooms at No 10 on Saturday 6 July. The new face of Team Starmer is non-metropolitan, female, white, with an unimpressed, no-nonsense expression. This feels like a government self-consciously other from the past regimes of hi-jinks and floppy-haired posh boys.

Many of us like that. The country is ready for it. I also liked that Starmer went first to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and invited the metro mayors, of all political persuasions (“I’m not a tribal politician”) to talk about economic growth. Everywhere, as the thrum of governance begins, there’s a reaching out to the knowledgeable and experienced – such as the appointments of Patrick Vallance, the former chief government scientist, or James Timpson, offender-hiring businessman and prison reformer.

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This, I’m told, is the mark of Sue Gray – that she wants an era with clear central direction; a government that will not jealously hoard its understanding in that old Westminster way. Part of the trouble modern Britain has had is that there is so much more practical expertise around the country than ever makes its way to Whitehall.

And there is another important side to this. Imposing a structure of “mission delivery boards”, chaired by the Prime Minister and his top team, means that alternative priorities being thrust at a new government by lobbyists, campaigners and dissenting MPs will be rebuffed.

If you want Starmer to see Gaza, or the tension between women’s rights and trans rights, as his defining issues, forget it. Compared with the five missions, with growth at their centre, all else is a distraction.

Life, in time, will intervene and there will be many unavoidable distractions ahead. But just as Starmer was wholly focused on winning the general election, doing everything – and saying so little – with that single goal in mind, now he will be just as focused on being a successful prime minister. And that means refusing to be distracted.

He has a harder, stiffer tone: it is widely remarked that Keir Starmer is “no Tony Blair”. But just how absurd, how jarring, would it be in this perilous year of 2024 to have that boyish Blair of the mid-1990s, all infectious grin, optimism and liberal promise?

We must stop trying to project ourselves on to leaders. We must resist childishly looking to elected parliamentarians as if they were our personal therapists, friends or pastors. For the political leaders, this habit, smuggled into democracies in recent years from the authoritarian mindset, means an insatiable, vampiric interest in their private lives and intimate truths that must ultimately destroy a sense of self. For us it means that every policy failure becomes a personal betrayal. It’s Tory thinking. Let’s drop it.

Keir Starmer promises a sober, grown-up style of government. It rests on the primacy of one of the dullest-seeming words in politics: delivery. It involves showing that NHS queues causing so many people anxiety and pain can be cut; that schools can be improved, and more teachers hired; that many new houses and apartments are built; that working conditions are improved; that police are more visible and make the streets safer; that illegal migration is curbed with a new border command. Each is difficult, but do those things – or even begin to do them – and many of the political dangers hedging this remarkable election result will melt away.

What about those disaffected millions voting for Reform? Succeed on delivery and the party will no longer be a threat. The anger on the left, displaced from Labour on to Greens and independents? Deliver, and it won’t matter. Getting into office with a historically low share of the vote and low personal ratings for Starmer – the “wide but shallow” sea on which Labour floats? Deliver, and the sea deepens.

One political argument that cannot be avoided is about the electoral system. Under this Labour government, it won’t alter – and, again, if life for working people visibly improves, that won’t matter. Outrage about the system is going to spread, not least because Nigel Farage will talk of little else until the messages “voting reform” and “vote Reform” begin to merge. This will be amplified by the right-wing media which somehow managed to forget the issue during the long Tory years.

In Labour’s narrow self-interest, a more proportional system would finally split the right and finish off the Tories. But what is the democratic machine for? Two things – to represent the national mood and create a working government. The mood was to get rid of the Tories. But this year proportional representation would have produced a hung parliament, and no clear forward direction. Would we have been better off? Look at France.

That takes us directly to the next essential but dull word: stability. Financial commentators are already picking out Britain, with its big-majority, secure-looking government for at least five and maybe ten years ahead, as a relative oasis of calm and security. Good news for Rachel Reeves. Good news for us.

The hammering taken by the SNP means that the underlying assumption in many parts of the world that the UK would soon break up has vanished. For market-makers, that is reassuring. There will be big inward investment announcements (and at least one cut in interest rates) on the way.

But if stability is valued in business, it is more so in world affairs. The former Downing Street foreign affairs adviser Tom Fletcher, now at Oxford University, argues that the most important thing Starmer can do for foreign policy is to “project the confidence of a two-term administration”. He tweets: “Diplomacy is [a] contact sport. Tone and body language as important as substance early on. Leaders love leader with big majority. They will seek PM out and big him up.… need a clear chorus line that UK is in practical, competent mode.”

There are some reasons for guarded optimism. But let’s turn to the obvious challenges. To prevent students being left to drift if their universities become bankrupt, to pay the junior doctors to get them back to work, and to help local authorities on the edge of going under – these interventions need money now. Reeves, so fluent on the campaign trail, is now going to have to find new sources of funding to stave off early crises. New ministers insist to me there won’t be any tax rises. Let’s wait and see.

Despite the big majority, Commons management over Europe, tax, welfare and migration are going to be tricky. The 72 Liberal Democrat MPs, alongside six left-wing independents, nine Scottish nationalists and four Green MPs, don’t have to combine with very many Labour dissidents on issues such as the two-child benefit cap to cause trouble; the aggregated “left bloc”, depending on the issue concerned, can reach 90 MPs. On paper, with its 172-seat majority, Labour can relax. In reality, I’m not so sure.

All the way to the bank: Rachel Reeves, flanked by Neil Amin-Smith and Ed Miliband. Photo by Justin Tallis/WPA Pool/Getty Images

At least as big a problem will be migration. While the new border command is being assembled and its leadership announced, the boats will keep bobbing over the Channel. It’s now the “Starmada”. The Home Secretary Yvette Cooper needs a policy for housing and processing asylum seekers; ridiculing the Rwanda scheme is old news. Because of changes the Tories made, and because of the fall in migration from Ukraine and Hong Kong, legal migration should be on the way down, but Labour cannot be relaxed about it in any way – not with Farage in the Commons.

Farage and his voters are at least as relevant to the other big unresolved problem: relations with Europe. Starmer has said he wants to tear down the barriers to business and trade, but Jonathan Reynolds, the new Trade Secretary, recently confirmed to me that this would not involve any return to free movement, still less the single market or customs union. There are warm words aplenty: the Irish are making positive noises about a veterinary agreement and the Foreign Secretary David Lammy wants a security deal that includes the environment and therefore industrial agreements. But what can Britain offer to reduce barriers? The primacy of growth points in one direction, parliamentary politics in the other.

Appointing the ultra-Blairite Alan Milburn to help Wes Streeting on NHS reform will be an early test. Milburn is a hate figure on the left for his embrace of private
medicine; but how much does Starmer care about ideology compared to getting waiting lists down?

Similarly, what seem to be easy early decisions on foreign policy – so easy they barely even feel like decisions – may soon unravel. Declaring absolute support for President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukraine is a no-brainer. But if Trump is re-elected, provokes Zelensky’s fall, and divides Europe between appeasers of Russia and fight-to-the-lasters, what should Labour do?

Similarly, the appalling Netanyahu government could involve Israel in a full-scale war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, drawing in Iran. In that kind of full-blown conflict, how would Starmer behave? In the campaign, the “Gaza independents” so overplayed their hand as to make themselves political outcasts among Labour people: personal abuse means there is no chance of reconciliation. It may not matter if Gaza has receded as an issue by the next election; but could Israel, looking north, provoke the “next Gaza”?

In such decisions, character matters most. We needed a grown-up leader able to prioritise and delegate, obsessed by delivery; able to take hard decisions that upset people, including friends, without losing sleep. And friends, fingers and toes crossed, we may have that guy. The smell in Whitehall? It’s the sharp, invigorating reek of change.

Photo by David Vintiner

[See also: How Labour can make government work better]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change