Behind the scenes at Labour HQ — can Keir Starmer take advantage of a Tory party in turmoil?

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 (Evening Standard composite)
(Evening Standard composite)

It is an ill wind in politics that blows someone some good luck – and Tory turmoil is turning into a golden opportunity for the Opposition.

So much so that the prospect of regaining power at the next general election looks so real that even Conservatives who had booked Keir Starmer in the featherweight category of challengers are beginning to wonder if their leadership battle may prove an electoral swansong. And, as Team Keir headed to Liverpool to deliver today’s keynote speech on the economy, the talk – for the first time since he took control of the party after the Corbynites’ defeat in 2019 – is of aiming for an overall majority in an early election which Starmerites think could come as soon as next May.

The ruthless defenestration of Boris Johnson in a putsch which has alienated the PM’s supporters and unleashed a bitter Conservative succession battle has had a Viagra-like effect on Labour. And crucially, as voters ponder an economic slowdown, rising inflation and worries about energy security and bills amid geo-political strains, the  fight has moved to a territory where Tories long held the upper hand: economic competence.

Today in the north-west, a resurgent Starmer will hammer home his  priorities for the next Labour government as “growth, growth, and growth”, with the promise of “making the country and its people better off”. As one of his closest advisors puts it, “We are getting out of our comfort zone and into the big battle for who will run Britain better.” Plans to focus mainly on public services, a traditional Labour electoral battleground, have been switched to a focus on the election-winning 1992 Bill Clinton centerpiece: “It’s the economy, stupid.” As one campaign expert puts it, “We have to meet voters where their concerns are, rather than telling them what we think the election should be about.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer delivers a speech on Labour’s plans for growing the UK economy in Liverpool (Danny Lawson/PA) (PA Wire)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer delivers a speech on Labour’s plans for growing the UK economy in Liverpool (Danny Lawson/PA) (PA Wire)

As the Tories prepare for a televised slugfest on the same topic tonight, with Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss fielding opposing ideas of what the country needs to pull through a threatening recession and cost-of-living crisis, Labour strategists spy a breakthrough. “Rishi is offering an eat-up-your greens recipe. Liz is offering jelly and ice-cream (with promises for swingeing tax cuts opposed by Sunak.) We have our own recipe – and voters are finally ready to give us a hearing.”

The combination of a “not-guilty” verdict on Starmer’s beer-drinking working supper in Durham, which the Labour leader referred to a police inquiry, has boosted spirits. And so has the impact of the Tory infighting. One aide says, “Our best performing social media has been 3.5 million views in a day, simply for a video we put out of Tories in the last round of the leadership contest tearing into the government’s record over the last decade.” That, and the consternation over Johnson’s unapologetic mishandling of Partygate, has put the Opposition in a strong position to define its pitch for power and ready its members and backbenchers for a fight.

Opposition is in a strong position to define its pitch for power and ready its members and backbenchers for a fight

But, a veteran backbencher sounds a note of caution, saying the risks of “carrying a Ming vase across slippery terrain” also loom. The economy has always been an issue which divides the party’s free-spending, public-service orientated Left and its more cautious, managerial wing. Negotiating that, while providing a winning “recipe”, needs a stronger Labour core message than has previously been apparent.

This “pincer movement”, as one of  Starmer’s  senior team describes it, is modelled on the Cameron-Osborne ascendancy in 2010. It sees Rachel Reeves, the ambitious shadow chancellor, stepping into the limelight. She will deliver a speech this week, announcing the formation of an “Industrial Strategy Council”, aimed at providing a more certain outlook for investors.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and Prime Minister Boris Johnson walk through the Members’ Lobby at the Palace of Westminster ahead of the State Opening of Parliament (Toby Melville/PA) (PA Wire)
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and Prime Minister Boris Johnson walk through the Members’ Lobby at the Palace of Westminster ahead of the State Opening of Parliament (Toby Melville/PA) (PA Wire)

Starmer and Reeves – which sounds a bit like a Jermyn Street gentleman’s outfitter -  will emphasize a “double act” status to reassure swing voters that Labour has a solid team at the top. So much so that Reeves raised eyebrows in one recent interview when she spoke of “the change in Labour under Keir’s and my leadership”. With extensive experience as an Oxford and LSE economics graduate, and stints at the Bank of England and shadow Chief secretary to the Treasury, Reeves certainly brings heft to the game. This also reflects a candid awareness that Starmer’s background as a human rights lawyer and head of the Crown Prosecution Service has left a gap around a clear message on voter’s pocket books and prosperity.

In the coming weeks and into the autumn, the duo will target weak UK performance in recent years under the Tories. They will attempt to hammer home their argument that the economy fared a lot better under the last Labour government. “A problem the Tories have now is that they have needed to raise taxes to offset low growth,’ says one economic aide. So Starmer and his aides have been on manouevres, talking to business leaders on why the UK is floundering. On a recent visit to Scotland, Starmer stopped at a wind-farm outside Glasgow and quizzed its management about why the turbines were imported, rather than manufactured in the UK. Expect a similar push on energy replacement plans, with a commitment to putting Britain ahead in the race to replace fossil fuels and economic dependency on autocracies by boosting hydrogen expansion.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer with Lucy Powell and Rachel Reeves (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer with Lucy Powell and Rachel Reeves (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

In truth, both parties are struggling with growth and productivity – but the Tories are divided on solutions and this friction is being broadcast nightly into voters’ living rooms. Beyond critics like Rebecca Long Bailey from the old Corbyn shadow Treasury team (she called on her party to return to more state ownership and drop its “cautious economic plans” ), the Starmer front bench is finally singing from the same song sheet.

A nine-point lead in the latest poll has buoyed spirits in what insiders call “the summer of hope” for the party. So much so that Starmer will next week head off on a long-delayed foreign holiday (having stuck safely close to home in Devon last year). One MP jokes, “No one now doubts that Keir and Rachel will be in post at the next election. It’s over to the Tories to provide the leadership challenges.”

The Starmer front bench is finally singing from the same song sheet

There are, though, some reality checks. Personal polling on Keir Starmer has yet to rise decisively, so that the polling gap looks more to be the result of Tory doldrums than a surge of support behind the Opposition figurehead. A new start in September (Labour planners believe Truss is their more likely opponent), would cauterize at least some of the damage of the recent Tory turmoil – hence the  push to get Labour ready for an election as early as May 2023. Then there is a new wave of strikes testing the party’s reputation for being soft on union demands.

Culture wars bubble under the surface too, particularly over trans rights and the opposition from many Labour feminists to embrace gender self identification remains corrosive. It’s a tinderbox area in which we’re unlikely to hear barn-storming speeches from the leadership. It’s a fringe issue for most voters who are anxiously checking their tax burden. Reeves has dropped some hints that Labour might look to finance tax cuts for workers, at the expense of shareholders – another potential flashpoint ahead.

Keir Starmer is feeling buoyant (PA)
Keir Starmer is feeling buoyant (PA)

For now, an Opposition accustomed to being the underdog sounds more confident of a breakthough than it has in over a decade. And its greatest facilitators are proving to be a divided Conservative party, trapped in disarray.

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