As Boris Johnson loses control, Keir Starmer is starting to get a grip

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<span>Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

As Harold Macmillan’s notorious “events” rain down on Boris Johnson’s incapable government, it will become clear that he’s to blame. This chaos carries the hallmark of his character, out of control and unprepared.

At a local petrol station with a long tailback, someone has scrawled: “If you voted Brexit, go to the back of the queue!” A sign outside a pub in Pembrokeshire I saw read, “Staff wanted, dead or alive”: the next day they’d added “and manager”. Labour’s message that the Tories have lost control, delivered at its annual party conference, resonates around the country.

Covid is no cover, when his failures left the UK with among the highest death tolls and worst economic damage. There are no petrol queues or empty shelves on the other side of the Channel. Never mind saving Christmas, when teachers and NHS staff with empty fuel tanks can’t get to work. This is all fallout from Johnson’s worst-of-Brexit deals – and Labour needs to say so, casting off its paralysing fear of the B-word.

The cost-of-living crisis starts next week, just as the Tory party conference ends, with their £20 universal credit axe falling on 6 million households. The words “levelling up” will die on the Conservatives’ lips, as food prices rise by an expected 5%, and the national insurance penalty lands in April. Out of control is how the country feels. As Labour at last unfurls policies likely to please many Tory voters too, it is beginning to look like a party ready to take control.

Usually far too cautious, Keir Starmer took an uncharacteristically gigantic gamble in confronting the Corbynite left – and he won. Asserting his authority, the leader showed that his party has remade itself as conference delegates agreed to his rule changes, giving more power to MPs in leadership selections and ending the madness of trigger ballots threatening to unseat MPs. It’s irrelevant to voters, maybe, but had the left won, the Tory press, aching for disaster, would have gloried in it. “Starmer under pressure as his reforms are sunk by left-wingers,” blazed the Sunday Times, in a wishful, pre-emptive error. Instead, Starmer is strengthened.

News from Germany lifts Labour spirits too, with a narrow social democratic win that contradicts doom-laden fears a few years ago of a rising European far right. In Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, social democrats rule, with socialist governments in Spain and Portugal; in Italy, the democratic left holds key coalition posts. Above all, look at Joe Biden in the White House, an old man hurrying to make massive social investments – a Democratic beacon licensing Labour to do likewise. Even we isolated Englanders, in all our solipsism and insularity of mind, may absorb those winds of change blowing over the sea towards us.

A strong speech from the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, has filled Labour’s policy void. Its green offer is monumental: the idea of making online giants pay to revive the high streets they destroy will be welcome everywhere, as will taking back some of the £174bn lost in tax reliefs. So is levelling up unjustly low taxes on unearned income: private equity, capital gains, landlord rents and share dividends.

It’s high time for insourcing public services, and for VAT to be levied on private schools. Making and buying British makes sense. As for her fiscal discipline with no-borrowing–for–everyday-spending, Labour still needs to earn that trust (though her straitjacket isn’t as blood-restricting as Gordon Brown’s).

Starmer makes his speech on Wednesday: orotund oratory is not his forte, but his tone needs to resonate beyond Labour voters. Never mind the bad prose of his long essay last week, it shows his direction of travel.

Like many, I instinctively blench at his “contribution society” echoing Blair’s “rights and responsibilities”: it sounds like demanding that deprived people try harder. But read the incontrovertible evidence that voters are strongly deterred by what they call Labour’s “something for nothing” attitude to benefits. And here’s the cynical message. Learn from liar Johnson: button your lip on some values to butter up the voters you need.

Yet there are plentiful reasons to be fearful: the party is confronting a rockface so high its summit is in the clouds. Listen to Rob Ford, politics professor at Manchester University, speaking at a packed electoral reform fringe. The system tilts ever further in the Tories’ favour: to win they only need a 3.5% lead, but Labour needs to lead by more than 12%. The Tory boundary review will make that worse. Labour voters increasingly cluster in the same seats, and the government’s plans to compel voters to show photo ID will deliberately deter young and poor people. Putin would smile.

Young people and graduates are overwhelmingly Labour voters: but will they save the party? No, says Bobby Duffy, author of a huge study, Generations. On average, age cohorts slide 0.34% more to the Conservatives with every extra year of life. “It may not sound a lot, but that soon adds up,” he warns. Fabian research this week shows that many of the 123 extra seats needed for a Labour majority are centred on middling towns, neither poor nor rich. Hammering on about poverty is not their issue. But these Tories failing to provide the elemental basics of everyday government could be.

Labour has to be hungry enough for power to curb some deep instincts and laser-focus on those policies that reach those who usually vote Conservative. The party is beginning to look ready for that. While the Tories are losing control of the country, Labour is getting a grip on itself and its future.

  • Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

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