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Think of party conference season as a football game between the big two parties. Today marks half-time. Labour’s weary squad head home from Brighton this afternoon, exhausted by five days of late-night boozing and internecine fighting.
The second half begins on Sunday, when the Conservatives descend on Manchester with a spring in their step, guffawing at their rivals’ self-inflicted mess. Instead of shooting at the Government’s petrol supply crisis, Labour shot itself in the foot again.
Sir Keir Starmer really needed to pull this one off, with a general election as little as 18 months away. That meant clear and positive definition and a bold vision for the future.
There were some positives that struck through Brighton’s storm clouds. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves was one, with her new fiscal rules to win back voters’ trust and blunt message about “difficult choices” ahead. Starmer, albeit reluctantly, also finally began to publicly face down his hard Left. And by choosing winning over unity when forced to by the BBC, he began to reverse the mistake every Labour leader has made for a decade.
Yet he picked Labour’s internal rule book as his battlefield with the Left, not policies that affect people’s actual lives. However necessary his reforms to leadership contests might be for party control, that’s a fight only the most dedicated will follow.
What few new policies Starmer did offer seemed designed to appease his brooding Left, like removing charitable status from private schools (which even Red Ed Miliband shied away from) and collective pay agreements.
But the Left never wanted compromise. They came to Brighton with bike chains and knuckle dusters for a traditional beach fist fight, and succeeded in derailing a good chunk of those internal reforms. Too often Starmer looked outgunned.
In his very long closing speech this afternoon (all 90 minutes of it, delivered at a consistent 33rpm), we learned more about Starmer the man, and his self-professed love of serious toil that he learned from his tool maker Dad. We also learned he could tell a knob joke, when he said Boris Johnson’s father “was also a tool maker in a way”.
Starmer’s multiple Corbynista hecklers ended up doing him a big favour, demonstrating better than his words did that he was finally taking them on. Yet even today, as it does every day, it felt like he spoke with the handbrake still on.
So is that it? Boris Johnson, pictured, goes to Manchester all-conquering with his poll lead intact and 80-seat majority still unchallenged? Is this year’s Reds versus Blues all over at half-time?
Actually no it isn’t. Because if the Prime Minister is cocky and complacent next week, he could still pluck a conference defeat from the jaws of victory. A growing number of Tory ministers fear the national mood is turning. Covid looks beaten medically, but economically, the hard graft is only just beginning. The recovery is proving lumpy, with multiple supply chain bottlenecks. All of which opens up charges of incompetence on the Government, and this week’s slow-footedness on the petrol panic serves as a sharp warning.
Pretty much everyone also now agrees it’s going to be a very tough winter for a lot of families. One Cabinet minister says the spiralling cost of living “frightens the shit out of me”.
The furlough scheme ends on Thursday, with the number without jobs to go back to estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. On the same day, the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit also ends and six million people’s income falls overnight. Add to that the social care tax rise, rising prices and inflation above 4 per cent for at least a year. If inflation climbs too high, interest rates will have to rise, with mortgage defaults and already deeply indebted businesses going bust. In short, the conditions for a full-blown economic crash.
In times of national crisis, like during the darkest days of Covid, Johnson’s buccaneering flair can come across as reckless, and Starmer’s plodding dullness look like a virtue.
Voters also still remain volatile and angry. As the pollster Peter Kellner points out, both Johnson and Starmer have posted negative net satisfaction ratings in every month of this year apart from one, a historical rarity. Johnson is currently on -13, almost double Starmer’s -7.
All of that is why Labour do still have a shot at power in 2023/4, because the next 18 months will be long ones in British politics.
So Boris’s task in Manchester is not just to flesh out what levelling up actually is (expect to hear a lot about that). He must also pre-feel all that upcoming pain and announce action to alleviate some of it. In politics, there’s one thing more toxic than incompetence. It’s looking like you don’t care.
Rivals strut their stuff in the Brighton beauty parade
Labour’s annual gathering has at times felt less of a conference and more of a beauty pageant for Keir Starmer’s wannabe successors. His loyal deputy Angela Rayner made the early running with a glossy photo shoot in The Times magazine, before topping that up with “Etonian scum” taunts.
Manchester mayor (and fellow Standard columnist) Andy Burnham swiftly joined the fray, at 11 fringe meetings. South Yorkshire mayor Dan Jarvis has also never hidden his ambition to lead Labour, and won’t run again to concentrate on Westminster.
It’s challenges from those two Northern big beasts Starmer most fears, judging by the speaking slots they got in the main conference hall. While Sadiq Khan (another hopeful) got his own podium time, Burnham and Jarvis just got an “in-conversation” panel.
And the dark horse to emerge in conference bar chat? Wes Streeting, energetic MP for Ilford North, who would be the first openly gay leader of a major party.
Anti-vaxxers get a blast from Belfast
A small but belligerent band of anti-vaxxers have been a constant presence in Brighton. Led by Jeremy Corybyn’s messianic brother Piers, they love crashing fringe meetings. Piers even got ejected from one of his own brother’s gatherings.
Another of the group’s favourite tricks is to crash TV interviews on the Brighton seafront. Or it was, until they came across SDLP leader Colum Eastwood. The Northern Ireland party boss brought a bit of Belfast street charm to the South Coast when he spun around to loudly tell one to “f*** off”. They swiftly did.
Tom Newton Dunn is a presenter and Chief Political Commentator on Times Radio
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