In 1998, The Sun famously declared the Conservative party dead. It pictured the-then leader William (now Lord) Hague as a blue parrot, hanging upside down on his perch, with the headline: “This party is no more... It has ceased to be... This is an EX-party.”
The paper’s Monty Python allusion amused many, but it turned out to be rather wide of the mark, as the Tories went on to regain power – for a decade and counting. Those who have similarly written off Labour should take note.
After May’s by-election defeat in Hartlepool, it’s become fashionable to declare the opposition moribund, even if no one has done a Sir Keir Starmer macaw montage just yet. But this week, there are stirrings of life.
As Kim Leadbeater jogged into the Commons and flexed her muscles as only a former fitness instructor-turned-MP can, her win in Batley and Spen put a spring in Sir Keir’s step too.
Admittedly it was a narrow victory – just 323 votes in it. But as with footie, so with politics: it’s all about confidence. And winning in Batley has given Labour the confidence to believe in itself again.
England’s historic triumph last night was in part about self-belief. It was also down to the brilliance of Gareth Southgate. A lot of politicians wish they could emulate his leadership skills; Sir Keir included.
Former Olympian Matthew Syed has quoted Southgate, telling him: “I like listening to people who know things that I don’t. That’s how you learn.” And after failing to break through in his first year as leader, Sir Keir may well be listening – and learning.
Labour insiders say his new backroom team is beginning to make its presence felt, with experienced veterans of the New Labour years – pollster Deborah Mattinson, communications chief Matthew Doyle and political director Luke Sullivan – credited with galvanising the leader.
Yesterday’s prime minister’s questions was a case in point. Sir Keir’s attack lines were much sharper than previously, with the jibe over the “Johnson variant” neatly encapsulating the perennial criticism that Boris Johnson has persistently done too little, too late to curb covid. If cases continue to soar, and the NHS starts to buckle, the prime minister’s tardiness in shutting out the more transmissible Delta variant may be one of his most serious errors yet.
Johnson appeared to flounder in the Commons yesterday, wheeling out hoary old responses on the European Medicines Agency and the success of the vaccines programme. Successful it has been, but even Conservatives are starting to ask: what’s next?
Sleaze allegations are beginning to stick, Tory MPs report. Charges of cronyism after the Matt Hancock affair came up on the doorstep in Batley, and with other ministers also under scrutiny, Labour’s on/off mantra of “Tory sleaze” could yet get traction nationally.
And then there’s the economy. Chancellor Rishi Sunak sounded as quietly confident as Southgate on the Today programme this morning. But his unwillingness to commit to the manifesto promise of the state pension “triple lock” guarantee – a pledge to increase pensions by whichever is the highest of earnings growth, inflation or 2.5 per cent – is a sign of his anxiety about how on earth he balances the books post-pandemic.
And that’s even before we’ve discussed the cost of saving the planet.
With such vast problems on the horizon, it’s little surprise the gossip in Westminster is of going to the polls sooner rather than later, possibly as early as the spring – little more than two years after the last election.
Given the state of the opinion polls, that should be a prospect which terrifies Labour. Many still assume the party is consigned to electoral oblivion for a generation at least.
And it’s true the challenges facing Sir Keir are several and varied. Serious doubts over his leadership remain. He’s no Gareth Southgate after all. But the England manager’s story is one of redemption after his infamous 1996 penalty miss. Politicians can learn from their mistakes too. They can, to quote Samuel Beckett, “fail better”.
And this week the parrot squawked. There may be life in the old Labour bird yet.
Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News, weekdays, at 7pm