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Keir Starmer certainly sounded like he was getting his excuses in early. Asked about a Survation poll suggesting the Tories would romp home in the Hartlepool by-election, the Labour leader said nobody “realistically” thought he could turn round his party “from the worst general election result since 1935 to a position to win the next general election within a period of one year”.
In fact, people around Starmer have been getting their excuses in a lot earlier than this week. In January – when the Tories had only a two point national lead – I reported senior figures were already forecasting a “vaccine bounce” for Johnson. They could see the writing on the wall, and it spelled a simple correlation between pride in the NHS rollout and Johnson’s feelgood factor.
Some saw an attempt at expectations management at the time, but it turned out to be an accurate prediction. Starmer’s words on Tuesday were not quite such a bald admission of defeat, but they contained a similar plea for patience in the face of the public’s focus on the route out of lockdown.
There’s no question that Johnson’s entire upbeat persona suits the good times best. When things were going badly last year, on everything from the A-levels fiasco to PPE shortages and test and trace failures, he sounded brittle. But thanks to the vaccine and a cautious roadmap, he has found a restrained optimism that seems to match the public mood.
In Leave-voting areas like Hartlepool, the Brexit factor may well still be a powerful weapon for the PM too. Not for nothing did he effectively declare at last week’s PMQs that it was Brexit-wot-won-it on both the European Super League (the UK could threaten to rewrite competition law on its own) and on the vaccines (Brussels delays and in-fighting made even Remainers blanch).
Several local Labour MPs and activists are certainly downbeat about the party’s chances in the seat. Many are pointing to Hartlepool’s historically stubborn streak, how its anti-Labour forces have always been strong but split. Labour came close to losing it in Thatcher’s pomp of 1983, and the combined “Hartlepools” seat had a wafer thin margin even in Attlee’s 1945 landslide.
Although there’s a lot of chatter that even a small victory would be a defeat, I suspect Starmer would bite your hand off for any kind of win. Peter Mandelson, who told our podcast recently “I’d like a majority which is a darned sight larger than one, thank you very much”, would probably breathe a sigh of relief too.
It remains to be seen just where the 25% Brexit party vote from 2019 travels in this by-election. Just how many of them were former Labour voters who felt voting Tory was a step too far? How many were Tories who loved Farage? How many Labour voters stayed at home because of Corbyn or Brexit and how many will now take the leap to backing Johnson?
Well, even before he became PM, Johnson certainly grasped a reality that some in Labour didn’t: that divides within the north (between big cities and smaller towns) were often as big as divides between north and south. That’s exactly the point he made in a speech in April 2019, when he was a backbencher on a trip to support Teesside mayor Ben Houchen.
Johnson was so enamoured of Houchen that he missed the last train back to London and had to be driven by a local supporter (as it happens a former Tory candidate in Hartlepool) on a four-hour journey to the capital. And it’s Houchen’s wider success (an upbeat narrative of green jobs and investment) that ought to worry Starmer even more than any Hartlepool result.
In fact, it’s possible that the “Ben bounce” will count as much as the “Boris bounce” in the by-election. With the mayoralty on the same ballot paper, putting a cross against one Conservative candidate is the gateway drug to doing the same for Hartlepool contender Jill Mortimer.
An Opinium poll suggests Houchen can win on first preferences (with 63%), but it also puts West Midlands metro mayor Andy Street on 54%. And here it’s the lack of a “Brum bounce” that could cost Labour, some MPs tell me, as the party’s turnout could be hit by the fact that Birmingham city council, the source of a usually solid Labour vote, is not voting this year.
The pain may not end there either. If MP Tracey Brabin wins the West Yorkshire mayoralty this Thursday, Labour will at some point face another tricky by-election, in her seat of Batley and Spen. Some expect that one to be held off as long as possible, maybe until the autumn when furlough starts to be withdrawn.
There is a glimmer of hope for Labour: Johnson’s chronic inability to plan ahead. When it comes to the concrete business of “levelling up”, the government is so far from knowing what that means that it has only today appointed an adviser to the PM on the topic (Neil O’Brien). His “White Paper” is a blank sheet of paper and not due until later this year.
At least Starmer was frank enough to say on Tuesday that he would “take full responsibility” for any failures at the ballot box. If there are some serious setbacks, his shadow cabinet may have to shoulder some blame too however. The perception of Starmer as “the bland leading the bland” could prove as harmful as any other factor in voters’ minds.
One party insider reports some good news from Hartlepool. “People in ‘15/’17/’19 were reporting back raw fury towards Labour on the doorstep, which is no longer the case.” Yet Starmer has to transform himself from being not-Corbyn into something positive. If the party loses the by-election, it could be down to the “meh” voters (who stay at home) as much as the ‘yeah’ voters (who back the Tories).
Repeat that apathy in a general election, and Starmer could more resemble William Hague than Neil Kinnock.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.