The thorny Tory leadership race between Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak must be the gift that continues to be given to Labor leader Keir Starmer. That is what conventional wisdom in Westminster would have you believe.
Labor cannot rely on the Tories to self-destruct
But if Starmer listens to those sirens, he can say goodbye to victory in the next general election. The inconvenient fact remains that the British opposition party has lost the last four elections. Starmer can’t rely on conservatives to self-destruct. Only if Labor regains voter confidence in the economy (among other things) will they avoid a fifth defeat.
Leadership challenges threaten Tory party unity and help the opposition, Keir’s chorus says. Yet this is only true if the conservatives crumble. Even now, the two conservative rivals are beginning to agree on the most contentious issue that has thus far divided them: the need to cut taxes to mitigate an impending recession.
Gallup opinion poll data suggests that internal party putsches are far more likely to have positive than negative impacts. Take a notable example: When thrice-elected Margaret Thatcher was expelled after a party dispute, her successor scored a fourth victory. After 11 years, Britain was tired of being harassed by the Iron Lady, despite being Britain’s most successful post-war leader. A change at the helm was enough change for voters.
Same with Boris Johnson. The caretaker prime minister was never beaten at the ballot box, but all the evidence suggests that his endless lies and scheming threatened his party with electoral annihilation. Thus, the main Cabinet members revolted and abandoned another loser. A 17th century political theorist put it this way: “Treason never prospers, what is the reason? Because if it prospers, no one will dare to call it Treason.
Naturally, Starmer crafts a message that it’s time for a change. The Conservatives will be in power for 14 years when the next election comes. But Truss – who, for now, looks like the winner of the Tory race – is already trying to portray herself as the candidate for change that will lift Britain’s economy out of its long slumber.
Slow to get his party out of their comfort zone, Starmer – a cautious lawyer by profession – needs to pick up the pace and take more risks to break through outside London SW1.
Earlier this month, the former pro-EU Labor leader ruled out any return of the UK to the European Union’s single market or customs union. He must win back lost Labor voters who abandoned his party to support Brexit. However, he gave a twist to his concession, denouncing “the mess” created by Boris Johnson’s departure agreement with Brussels.
The mile-long queue of cars at the Channel Tunnel border earlier this week suggests Starmer has found a plausible line of attack. Polls show that a large majority of voters stand by their decision to leave Europe in 2016, but 45% think Brexit is going badly and only 27% think it is going well. The question now is: what is the Labor Party going to do about it?
Starmer’s most important task is to convince voters that his party can once again trust the economy. It lost its reputation for caution when a Labor government entered the financial crisis 15 years ago with excessive levels of public spending. The Tories convinced voters that Prime Minister Gordon Brown “failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining”. Every Labor leader who followed him was accused of financial micawberism.
Today, inflation is rapidly approaching double digits and the country under the Conservatives is heading into recession. The tax burden has reached unprecedented levels and winter threatens another round of fierce energy price hikes. Starmer must exploit these “discomfort factors”.
Tony Blair once said that his priorities were “education, education, education”. In a Monday speech that consciously echoed her, Starmer argued that “growth, growth, growth” was his. He called Sunak “the architect of the cost-of-living crisis” and Truss “the latest graduate of the money tree’s magic school of economics”, throwing back the accusation of conservative recklessness against them. The Tories are now the ones being reckless with the economy, he argues, while Labor offers a pair of safe hands.
For credibility, Starmer relies on shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, an Oxford and LSE economics graduate who worked at the Bank of England before taking on the role of chief secretary to the Treasury. She highlighted the party’s pro-business credentials this week by announcing the formation of an investment-friendly “industrial strategy council”. She also ruled out massive renationalisation of public services, ostensibly because the money can be better spent elsewhere.
But Labor has its own problems with party unity. The hard left remains irreconcilable and even the soft left in Parliament resents a political strategy that appeals to the center where victories are usually won. Starmer had to fire his transport spokesman this week for sending a message and supporting striking railway workers.
There will be tougher trials ahead as a summer of discontent turns into a winter of industrial strife. Labor relies on union money for support, but knows it cannot afford to be portrayed as too friendly to the strikers. This tightrope is flawed.
Who really understands in which direction Starmerism would move the country? In his farewell to the House of Commons, Boris Johnson mocked him as ‘Captain Crasheroonie Snoozefest’. It was schoolboy humor. But with a glimmer of truth that is also disturbing.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its main political commentator.
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