May 8, 2024

Now that the final set of local contests before the General Election is behind us, political attention turns to national campaigning strength and strategies.

Since the beginning of 2022 the Labour Party has enjoyed consistent double-digit leads in the opinion polls. This has been re-enforced by a series of spectacular by-election gains during this period as well as uniformly strong local government results, culminating in last Thursday’s continued steady triumph.

Naturally there was enough in some individual  results to give crumbs of comfort even to the beleaguered  Conservative Party. Enough perhaps to ward off a further leadership challenge which would probably precipitate a summer election.  However, the energies of many of Sunak’s bitterest internal critics already seem focused on picking up the pieces in the aftermath of the widely anticipated defeat.  Time will tell, but I suspect this uneasy war of attrition will continue until the election campaign, most likely to take place in October, is upon us. Not that the skies are entirely clear even for the Labour Party whose steadfast stance on events in Gaza has seen them lose support in some of their heartlands. Whilst the first past the post electoral system tends to make General Election outcomes more binary, what happened to the Labour vote in parts of London and  in the very close-run contest for the West Midlands mayoralty, as well as in Bristol, Blackburn and Oldham, may temper the widespread expectations of an imminent landslide victory.

One other important caveat that should provide some comfort to any political insiders  disappointed by this week’s local election performance. Remember 2017. That year’s local elections  took place in the midst of a General Election campaign that was already underway. A series of spectacular local council victories seemed to confirm that Theresa May was set to lead the Conservatives to a landslide national victory. On the back of this success virtually every opinion pollster was convinced that a sizeable Tory majority was in the bag. Yet only five weeks later when the General Election votes were counted she had contrived to lose her overall majority.

How will  historians make sense of the unremitting  turbulence that has engulfed UK politics in the almost eight years since the EU referendum?  The endless drama of five Prime Ministers, two general elections, two failed leadership challenges to sitting premiers and Tory MPs voting in twelve separate ballots across four contests to elect a new Prime Minister. Almost incredibly this entire trauma has played out exclusively within the same governing party throughout this period. Small wonder that even many staunch Conservatives regard their party as exhausted and in need of a spell in Opposition in order to regroup.

Yet it is worth recalling that for eighteen months following Boris Johnson’s near landslide victory in December 2019, it appeared that the British Conservatism had once again been able to reinvent itself. Johnson’s victory had come about by incorporating into the Conservative family many Brexit-supporting voters from Labour’s former industrial heartlands of England and the northern half of Wales (the so-called ‘Red Wall’).  Alongside the traditional, reliable Tory voting bloc of affluent market-town and suburban residents in the Midlands and South of England, this seemed an unbeatable combination. In reality it has proved too broad and loose an alliance to sustain. In desperately trying to hold this coalition of interests together the Conservatives now seem set to lose support across the board in a very challenging General Election that lies ahead.

This all comes at a time when many Conservative Party members have lost patience with the leadership and the parliamentary party, which they regard as lacking legitimacy. As they see it, twice in recent years, the Tory MPs have unilaterally overturned the membership’s verdict in its single most important prerogative, namely electing the party leader. First by unceremoniously ousting their anointed choice and proven election winner Boris Johnson; then in terminating Liz Truss’s premiership within seven weeks of her being voted in by the party membership in preference to Rishi Sunak, who was then foisted upon them by the parliamentary party without even the courtesy of consultation.

Despite his evident diligence and administrative abilities, Sunak has struggled to hold together a political party that is for now probably ungovernable. His position is made more vulnerable by the recent collapse in his own previously favourable opinion poll ratings, although this partly reflects the acute damage already done to the Conservative brand.   The Conservatives have been in office for the past 14 years. Over this time acute and unresolved problems have mounted up at home and abroad, so it should come as little surprise that there is now an overwhelming feeling that it is ‘time for a  change’.  Sunak also suffers from the perception that during a cost of living crisis he, his most prominent  Ministers and the party’s most prominent donors and supporters are shielded by their personal wealth from the privations that many are feeling. Finally there is a general sense that almost uniquely outside of wartime that the overwhelming majority of middle-aged Britons believe their children will be worse off than them and will not have the opportunities the previous generation took for granted.

None of this makes an appeal  for a further mandate easy. Nor has Sunak been helped by the almost constant stream of adverse by-election results in safe seats;  such defeats are always desperately debilitating to parliamentary morale if only because sitting MPs inevitably extrapolate adverse results to assess their own electoral prospects.

But what of the Opposition parties?

Labour’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer, apparently stands on the cusp of pulling off a remarkable victory. Yet he is almost continually criticised, by many outside his immediate circle,  for lacking ambition in what he is offering. Nevertheless he and his team are well aware of the need neither to overpromise nor to leave too many hostages to fortune.  Seared into the collective memory of Labour’s leadership  are past elections which appeared to be there for the taking but were then unexpectedly lost.  The abiding lesson of their defeats in 1992 and 2015 is that the less that needs to be said before an election, the better. Political commentators constantly claim that  ‘Starmer needs to explain now just how a Labour government would change Britain’. This is nonsense and the experienced team around the leadership – many of whom have been recently recalled to the colours  having served in the Blair and Brown administrations – know it.

Starmer benefits from being widely under-estimated. Even now many in the Westminster village put his success primarily down to good fortune, for ‘being in the right place at the right time’  as the Conservatives have imploded.  Yet unlike Tony Blair and David Cameron – the only party leaders of the past 45 years to enter Downing Street at a general election – Starmer has had to rebuild his party from the ashes of an almost existential catastrophic defeat.  The conventional wisdom as recently as May 2021, when Labour was trounced at the Hartlepool by-election, thereby losing a seat it had held for the previous half-century, was that Starmer was likely to be just another in the procession of Opposition Leaders before eventually the electoral pendulum might begin to swing back in Labour’s favour.

This common narrative fails to recognise his achievement and grit. Funnily enough I first came across Keir Starmer in the mid-1980s when we were both in our early twenties. Little did we know that three decades on we would be MPs representing neighbouring constituencies.  Our first encounter was in the sedate, if not entirely silent, surroundings of the St Edmund Hall library amidst the endless shelves of Law Reports.  I was already an undergraduate there and Keir had recently arrived at Oxford, via a top First at Leeds University, to study the prestigious postgraduate Bachelor of Civil Law  course. Our paths crossed a little in college student politics. Unlike many on the Left he was at all times smartly and conventionally dressed; he always spoke with a quiet, uncharismatic determination rather than the  flamboyant rabble-rousing  more usually associated with student politicians. In truth then, as now, he and his political outlook were difficult to categorise. Whilst there has always been a suspicion that his instincts are more radically left-wing that they seem, his style and demeanour has invariably been unthreatening and low-key.

Perhaps this modesty and ordinariness (and I use neither term pejoratively) suits the times we live in now. It is slowly dawning on us all – except perhaps for the most unrepentant  Brexit-supporters in the Conservative Party – that Britain’s reputation has been damaged and its place in the world diminished by the relentless turbulence of the past decade. The key to Labour’s apparently limited vision for the UK is not down to a lack of ambition. It is a stark recognition that our short-term options are very limited. The tax burden is already at a peacetime high; the UK’s accumulated public debt now exceeds annual GDP; fast rising healthcare and pension liabilities reflect a fast-ageing population and the clamour for more money to be spent on defence and security rises daily as geopolitical clouds darken across the globe.   Exuding quiet competence, Keir Starmer may well be the politician best equipped to take our nation forward in a world where Britain finally shakes off its sense of self-regard and exceptionalism.

His recently appointed  Chief of Staff, Sue Gray, arrived in controversial circumstances but by all accounts she has added a fresh sense of professionalism to  preparations for government. Doubtless this is part of the mythology of Labour’s road-map to office, but story-telling of this sort is an important facet of modern politics. She has also been credited with helping to still ideological divisions, although in truth this reliably happens when any Opposition party enjoys a consistent double-digit lead in the opinion polls and the sands of time towards an election are fast draining away.

Before her arrival Starmer had already put in place a quietly imposed iron grip of centralised control when it came to policy-making and development as well as the all-important candidate selection process. In Rachel Reeves he has a Chancellor-in-waiting who is orthodoxy personified even where this involves taking tough and unpopular decisions. He has brought back into the frontline  several former Ministers who will not only be able to hit the ground running in office, but are already making the powerful case that a ‘decade of renewal’ is required. This is clear code that there is a recognition that the first term of a Labour government will need to be spent stabilising the situation;  only in the event of winning re-election will many of its supporters see a recognisably leftist agenda.

For the Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, a run of spectacular by-election triumphs in very safe Tory seats (three of these four victories coming in constituencies they had not won in over a century) have understandably raised hopes of a breakthrough. Again it is worth recalling that even at the 1997 Labour landslide, the third party of UK politics was able to double its parliamentary representation to 46 seats despite its overall national vote share falling. This reflected not only the collapse in the Conservative vote share, but also the extent to which the relentless desire to oust the Conservative government of the time had opened the door to tactical voting. Nowadays the universality of social media and the internet will almost certainly assist in repeating this trick.

Even before the justifiably adverse publicity he received over the Post Office/Horizon scandal, Ed Davey’s underwhelming leadership of the Liberal Democrats was coming under scrutiny.  His uninspiring bombast and failure to connect with voters probably matters less than the fact that he had willingly served as a Minister for the full five years of the coalition government. Even a decade on this remains something of a dead weight on the party’s electoral prospects with many left-leaning voters.

And yet….if the slogan that governed the 2019 election was ‘Get Brexit done’ arguably the watchword this year may well be ‘Get the Tories out’?  I should not be surprised if the Liberal Democrats  end up with an overall percentage vote share barely in double figures; but thanks to ruthless targeting and industrial levels of tactical voting,  that party may yet pick up as many as 40-50 seats, whilst at the same time polling at such dismal levels outside their target areas that they may well lose their deposit in 250 or more constituencies.

Written on 6 May 2024 by The Rt Hon Mark Field, former Member of Parliament (MP) for Cities of London and Westminster and Consultant at Buchler Phillips, an independent boutique firm with an impeccable Mayfair London heritage, specialising in corporate recovery, turnaround, restructuring and insolvency.


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