Keir Starmer needs a game plan to defeat the Tories - and Boris Johnson’s possible successor

PUBLISHED: 21:35 27 August 2020 | UPDATED: 21:35 27 August 2020

Labour leader Keir Starmer. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA.

Labour leader Keir Starmer. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA.

PA Wire/PA Images

ANDREW ADONIS says Keir Starmer may not face Boris Johnson at the next election - and his replacement could make Labour’s electoral challenge even tougher.

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I love the Last Night of the Proms. I was there waving my European flag last year while singing merrily along. My only problem with Land of Hope and Glory is that after Covid-19 and Brexit there will be precious little of either. It will be land of no hope and humiliation.

You might therefore think, as we enter this year’s not-the-party conference season, that Boris Johnson would be languishing and his government in the doldrums. Yet the Tories are still just ahead in the polls and Johnson retains the initiative, even on Brexit where the new Labour leadership has decided not to have a policy until it sees which way the autumn wind blows.

‘Wait and see’ is rarely a strategy to rule the waves, even the airwaves. It is the same on the economy, where Labour’s position in the Covid crisis has been to call for a bit more of everything the Treasury is doing. Unsurprisingly the Tories are still way ahead on economic management.

On schools, whose complete closure was arguably the single biggest mistake in the handling of the pandemic, and an underlying cause of last week’s exam grades crisis because no public examinations were sat this summer, Labour has been similarly behind the government all the way, with just a bit of carping on the sidelines.

It is early days of this parliament and the weather could change, maybe dramatically if Dominic Cummings persists with his ‘Mao strategy’ of decapitating Whitehall and Gavin Williamson is let loose with that whip he carefully included in the photos accompanying his U-turn. Wags in the education department are campaigning for Chris Grayling to come and rescue them.

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But Johnson’s currently most potent rival, and likely successor if he departs any time soon, is not any figure in the opposition but rather Rishi Sunak, the most popular chancellor since Gordon Brown. Sunak’s latest approval rating is a stonking 59%. His predecessor Sajid Javid – remember him? – peaked at 19, while Philip Hammond, the one before, never got higher than 25.

If I could make a confession in the privacy of this column: Sunak is the first front-rank politician since Tony Blair who reminds me of Tony Blair. From me, you realise, that is the greatest compliment imaginable.

I say all this frankly, as a Labour politician who admires Keir Starmer and wants him to succeed, because disguising the view is rarely the best way of getting up a mountain. On the contrary, you need both a good view and a good map. And the best map to navigate Labour successfully from opposition to government is the Blairite one.

Starmer’s strategy to date has been to concentrate on ousting the Corbynistas while tacitly or overtly supporting Johnson on Covid-19 and on Brexit, the only two things really happening in British government, from a combination of patriotism (good) and a lack of alternative ideas (bad). It is essentially a holding operation.

The question for the autumn is whether this becomes Starmer’s permanent operation. Is he capable of bold reinvention? In my view, without real transformation his chances of winning an election aren’t great, particularly against Sunak. Since this would be the fifth Labour defeat in a row, sirens need to sound early in this parliament, while there is still time to make things work.

In other news, the Lib Dems are about to elect a new leader too, after nine months treading water. This event is more important than the party’s polls and profile suggest, since I cannot see any path to Tory defeat in 2024 without strong formal or informal cooperation between Labour and the Lib Dems, with the smaller party winning seats in their areas of traditional strength across rural and provincial Britain.

The fate of Trump in 10 weeks time will, I suspect, have a significant bearing on British politics and Brexit. A pollster pointed out to me that Trump’s poll ratings, while lower at this stage than for any post-war president who got re-elected, are also higher than for those who didn’t. It ain’t over till the fat lady sings – if she is allowed to sing.

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