Voters know they will regret supporting Labour, but they’re going to do it anyway

Sir Keir Starmer
Sir Keir Starmer - Anadolu/Ewan Bootman

“Let me have men about me that are fat”, says Julius Caesar presciently. “Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o’ nights”.

Voters think the same. A wealth of research shows that tubbier politicians – tubbier male politicians, at any rate – are seen as serious, dependable and likely to be good in a crisis. Think of the MPs down the years whom the newspapers have called heavyweights. More often than not, from Denis Healey to Ken Clarke, they have literally been heavy.

Rishi Sunak is neither fat nor sleek-headed. He tries not to eat anything for one day each week, and his suits are as immaculate as his haircuts.

I wonder whether, in this most superficial of ages, these things tell against him. However conservative the poor chap is – he voted Leave, staved off a lockdown in December 2021, and resigned as chancellor over excessive spending – he doesn’t immediately come across as a man you’d want next to you in the trenches.

I suspect the early election, which caught so many Conservative MPs on the hop, was in part motivated by a desire not to look wimpy. Hanging on until the last minute might have confirmed voters in their view that the PM, however polite and pleasant, was at the mercy of events. Going early was bold.

Boldness counts in politics. Contrast Sunak’s decisiveness with Nigel Farage’s refusal to contest a seat because, he says, he is more interested in another country. “Important though the general election is, the contest in the United States of America on November 5 has huge global significance”. Quite the statement from a man whose political career has been based on an appeal to British patriotism.

Sunak’s pitch to the electorate is that he offers strength, the traditional appeal of a Rightist leader. In his last major speech before calling the election, and again during the downpour on Downing Street, he asked people to trust his experience in an uncertain world.

Uncertain, in this context, means several things. Most obviously, we are closer to a world war than at any time in 60 years. As the chief executive of the defence company QinetiQ told this newspaper on Thursday, governments everywhere are gearing up for a major conflagration.

But uncertainty – what French politicians mean by “insecurity” – does not refer only to the international situation. It also covers crime, immigration and the cost of living. Again, all these issues have traditionally been Conservative strong suits.

Why, then, are the Tories 25 points behind? Across most of Europe, the same factors – war in Ukraine, mass population movements, and concerns about inflation and crime – have prompted a swing to the Right, often the authoritarian Right. Conservative parties, whether of the traditional or populist variety, are set to romp home in the European elections in two weeks’ time. What makes Britain different?

Part of the answer is that voters around the world have turned on whichever party was in power when the bills for the lockdown came in. Being in charge at the height of the pandemic bestowed a certain authority. Justin Trudeau and Jacinda Ardern were sly enough to seize the moment and hold snap elections.

But once voters realised what the lockdowns meant in terms of higher taxes and higher prices, they forgot that they had themselves been clamouring for even tighter restrictions and blamed the downturn on whomever happened to be in office.

For the Tories, this anger is exacerbated by long tenure. The last prime minister to take his party to a fifth consecutive general election victory was the Duke of Wellington in 1830. After 14 years, people are not just cross because of the effects of the lockdown. They have heaped up numerous accumulated frustrations, some more niche than others.

Canvassing before last month’s local elections, I came across one woman who would never vote Tory again because we were sending too much money to Ukraine, a second who was furious about the Post Office scandal, and a third whose complaint had to do with VAT.

In each case, I asked whether they expected a different party to bring redress, but I found that I was asking the wrong question. None of them was interested in Labour. What they wanted was to give the Tories a kicking.

Hence Sir Keir Starmer’s strategy of saying as little as possible, and allowing people to project their hopes onto him. The last Labour politician to keep so shtum in the run-up to his premiership was Gordon Brown. The grim Langtonian gave almost nothing away as chancellor (in terms of his opinions, that is; he gave rather a lot away financially, alas, including our gold reserves). In consequence, lots of people came to see him as competent and clever.

Brown was another politician who, partly for bodily reasons, was generally referred to as a heavyweight. Only when he became prime minister did people realise quite how small he could be.

Still, Starmer’s strategy is working. It is remarkable to think that he is ahead, in large measure, because people want immigration to be cut, wonder where their taxes are going, and feel that our strike-ridden public services are failing.

In what world will these things improve under Labour? Does anyone imagine that Starmer will make the NHS more market-oriented, tackle the problem of unaffordable public sector pensions, or cut taxes?

To the extent that we can discern any philosophy behind Starmer’s regular retreats from policy commitments, he seems to want politicians to be even more constrained by human rights lawyers like himself. Hence not only his support for the courts when they have struck down attempts to reduce illegal immigration, but also his desire to give them wider powers to interfere through, for example, a new Race Equality Act.

Blair did similar things, passing the Human Rights Act. But Blair took over when the national debt stood at 37.6 per cent of GDP. Today it is around 100 per cent, and our patience will be much thinner.

If the opinion polls are right, Starmer will win a huge majority, but little of the benefit of the doubt, the readiness to forgive, that usually accompanies a big win. In a scenario that might have come straight from Very British Problems, people are putting Labour in office knowing that they will almost immediately regret it.

Sunak is right to try to make the contest presidential. He knows that, the more Starmer is forced to declare his position, the more Labour’s all-things-to-all-men coalition will splinter. Hence his attempt to have as many head-to-head debates as possible; and hence Starmer’s reluctance.

Perhaps, as polling day draws closer, people will begin to compare the Conservatives, not to some imagined Platonic alternative, but to the actual alternative. Perhaps they will ask whether a country whose taxes are already at a 70-year high can afford Labour’s promises. Perhaps they will notice Starmer’s proposal to scrap the Rwanda scheme and, in effect, give an amnesty to asylum-seekers already here. Perhaps.

But most voters have already made up their minds. If the streets I have canvassed are anything to go by, they see the Labour leader, not as the answer to their problems, but as a club with which to belabour the Tories.

In that role at least, he may prove effective. But I’ll tell you this now. If he wins, no one will call him a heavyweight.