Voices: Keir Starmer can afford to be polite to Liz Truss for one key reason – he knows he is winning

·4-min read

What goes on behind the speaker’s chair in the Commons, away from the cameras, tells us a lot about the state of politics. Soon after Buckingham Palace announced that doctors were “concerned” about the Queen’s health, Keir Starmer and Liz Truss both left the chamber – and from the press gallery, I could see them talking, presumably about the statements they would have to make.

One of the big changes of the Truss ministry is that she and the leader of the opposition get on. This was not the case with Boris Johnson. Starmer once had an angry confrontation with the former prime minister in the corridor behind the speaker’s chair. Starmer accused him of wrongly claiming that Labour wanted to join the EU’s vaccine programme – Starmer then had to apologise because he had misheard, but even in public he failed to conceal his personal dislike of Johnson.

With Truss, though, he is respectful. When they first faced each other at Prime Minister’s Questions the day before the Queen died, he was perfunctory in his congratulations, and he conspicuously did not offer to work with the government to deal with the energy crisis. “We did all that supportive stuff during the pandemic, and where did it get us,” asked one Labour source. But Starmer was careful to avoid personal insults – and I am told that in private, the two of them have a good relationship.

Starmer can be polite to Truss because he can afford to be. Johnson was a centrist: a New Labour Brexity Hezza amalgam that Starmer found impossible to get to grips with. With so little between them on policy, Starmer had to attack Johnson’s character – and Johnson generously provided him with plenty of material with which to do so.

Truss has been driven to the centre on the energy price freeze, but she is not a centrist. She didn’t want to announce the biggest state intervention since the last one, only a couple of years ago. She continues to insist on unpopular policies that have Starmer’s people hugging themselves with glee, while keeping straight faces to the world and insisting, “No complacency.”

She and Kwasi Kwarteng, her chancellor, want bigger bankers’ bonuses and the low-paid to work longer hours than the EU working time directive allows. They refuse to increase the windfall tax on oil and gas companies, one of the most popular policies ever polled, and want to borrow the money instead.

On top of that, they have offended the civil service by sacking Sir Tom Scholar, the popular and experienced permanent secretary of the Treasury, against whom they appear to bear a grudge from after the 2017 election, when Truss was chief secretary to the Treasury and Kwarteng was parliamentary private secretary to Philip Hammond, the chancellor.

It is possible, as John McTernan, Tony Blair’s former political secretary, argues, that Starmer is falling into Truss’s trap rather than the other way round. McTernan says of uncapping City bonuses: “It is not the specific policy detail that matters; it is the sense of the overall direction.” Enriching bankers and oil companies may be controversial, but it advertises a government that will “go for growth” – whereas Labour always wants to tax and talk about how to redistribute the proceeds.

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It is a theory, anyway. The model is Margaret Thatcher’s early period in government. Her policies were unpopular and she too went to war with the civil service. Kwarteng wrote a book in 2015, Thatcher’s Trial, an account of the six months from the Budget of March 1981 to the cabinet reshuffle in September. “During this period, Margaret Thatcher showed herself to be inflexible, tough minded and courageous,” Kwarteng wrote. “Her judgements were clear but often wayward; her self-belief sometimes faltered, although publicly she never let any hesitation blunt her message.” Remind you of anyone?

Kwarteng is an impressive historian; McTernan is a great analyst of politics; and it is worth being aware of the ways in which the conventional wisdom can get things wrong; but in my view, this is a plan of Baldrickesque cunning. A lot of people got Thatcher wrong in 1981, but that doesn’t mean they are wrong about Truss now. If you do really unpopular things, you tend to become really unpopular. And conversely if you fail to do really popular things, you hand your opponents a stick with which to beat you.

No wonder Keir Starmer looks as if he cannot believe his luck. He can be as elaborately courteous as he likes to Truss, while expressing polite disagreement with her policies, because he knows he is on the right side of public opinion. Maybe the economy and the public finances will turn, and rescue Truss as they did Thatcher in 1982-83, but it doesn’t seem likely.