A smell of death is now seeping out of Westminster, choking the atmosphere of the nation, poisoning everything it touches. With each new crisis, the smell only gets stronger and the reaction from the public more visceral. Where there was once frustration with the Government, then anger, and then contempt, now there is something closer to disgust: sewage in the sea, poison in the rivers, crumbling concrete in the schools, councils going bankrupt, and unknown ministers demanding to be thanked for it all.
The truth is, when such a stench gathers, it is all but impossible for a government to decontaminate. It happened to the Tories in the early Sixties, Labour in the late Seventies and then again to the Tories in the Nineties. Regardless of the personal strengths of the prime ministers at the time — and the weaknesses of their opponents — there comes a time when the public and the media can only wrinkle their noses in disgust. When this happens, a different transformation takes place on the other side of the political aisle. Suddenly the leader of the opposition changes into that altogether different beast: a prospective prime minister.
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“Whether the government is as good as dead or not” wrote Guardian’s Peter Jenkins in 1977, two years before Margaret Thatcher’s defining triumph, “the psychological moment may have arrived at which people begin to look at the Tory leader in a new way…” There are dangers in such moments of course. Back in 1977, for instance, Jenkins noted that “the sweet promise of success may… give release to her high-spirited instincts which lie naturally a good deal farther to the right than she cares to let on”.
How true that would prove. Yet before she became prime minister she would keep these instincts in check. From 1975 to 1979, “caution and ambition [were] the two reins of her passion”, as Jenkins put it.
Today, something similar is true of Keir Starmer, though perhaps it is not his own high-spirited instincts he’s worried about revealing but those of the party he leads. Either way, it is certainly true that, like Thatcher before him, Starmer has led his party with skill and restraint, reining the Labour party to his own ambition.
Consider, as evidence, this week’s carefully managed but effective reshuffle, sidelining enemies and promoting ideological allies. In many ways, in fact, Starmer’s leadership is more effective than even Thatcher’s at the same stage in the electoral cycle, having now demoted almost anyone who has challenged his authority while also forming a degree of ideological cohesion in the process. It would take Thatcher much of her first term — and a foreign war — to truly stamp her authority on the party.
The big winners from this week’s reshuffle were obviously the Blairites. Six of his shadow cabinet are not just Blairite by inclination — they were actually special advisers under Blair himself. This is quite a turnaround for Starmer, whose instincts have always appeared to lie much further to the Left than Blair. In 2010, for instance, when the Labour party was agonising over whether or not to return to the Blairite playbook with David Miliband or to begin its journey of rejection under Ed Miliband, Starmer was in Team Ed. When Jeremy Corbyn’s behaviour became too much for many Labour MPs to swallow, Starmer held his nose and gulped down his responsibilities, rising to shadow Brexit secretary and remaining in place throughout Corbyn’s leadership. There is a steel to Starmer which is perhaps more revealing than anything else — a discipline we should take note of.
Like Thatcher, then, Starmer has his eyes on the prize. He became Labour leader only three years ago, standing as the soft-Left candidate, able to bring all wings of his party back together again. Instead, he has completed an extraordinary takeover, expelled the former leader, and asserted his total dominance over the party from the Right. As Blair noted, Starmer is attempting to do in one term what he, Neil Kinnock and John Smith tried between 1983 and 1997.
Today, the defining reality of British politics is that Labour is running away from the Tories in the polls. As it did for Wilson before 1964, Thatcher before 1979 and Blair before 1997, an air of inevitability has set in. But there is one crucial difference, which is a problem for Starmer. In each of these watershed political moments, when a rotten smell attached itself to the government of the day, the opposition offered a simple diagnosis of its cause — and a treatment plan.
In 1964, Wilson painted the Tories as stuffy old amateurs blocking the professional modernisation of the country that only he could deliver. In 1979, Thatcher argued that she was the country’s last chance to reverse the spread of collectivism that was choking Britain. In 1997, Blair was able to define the Tories as corrupt ideologues clinging to a set of old dogmas that no longer worked, destroying public services and Britain’s influence in the world. The country had 24 hours to save the NHS and to restore its influence in Europe.
A year out from the next election, Starmer’s story about the cause of Britain’s problems today — the original sin behind our woes today is not entirely clear. And this is important. As Boris Johnson told me, people live by narrative; they understand the world through stories which make sense of the chaos. It is the job of politicians to shape that national story to their advantage. In Britain, we always complain about our poor productivity and failing public services, while bemoaning our national decline. All this only becomes deadly for a government when it culminates in a collective sense that it is all linked and the government is to blame. We are living in that moment. But why have things gone wrong?
You might say the rot began with austerity in 2010, and that, at heart, the economy is not fundamentally broken, but has been strangled by dogmatic cuts which must now be lifted. In this account, Britain can slowly start to breathe again once adequate resources start flowing into public services. Once they do, the potholes will begin to disappear, schools will no longer be dangerous, doctors will stop striking and the new green economy of the future will flourish. I think of this as the Lion King story: all that needs to happen to save the Pride Lands is for Simba to return and put things back in harmony.
To others, though, the problem is much more fundamental — usually in one of two ways. Either the rot began in 2007/08, an explosion which revealed that the British economy was never as strong as it looked, or in 2016, when Britain chose to leave the EU. For increasing numbers of people — particularly on the Left — it is Brexit that remains the great wound to the body politic, from which no recovery is ever truly possible until it is reversed.
But which of these stories does Starmer believe? It is still not entirely clear. In The Way Ahead, his 2021 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, Starmer offered a kind of amalgamation of these three stories. “After the global financial crash,” he wrote, “the Conservatives’ reckless economic approach failed to deliver growth or repair the public finances.” This is standard Labour fare, tracing the crisis back to 2007 and its aftermath — though not the conditions which allowed the crisis to be so destructive to Britain in the first place. But for Starmer, the Tory response to the 2007 crisis can then be broken up into three “distinct but related” periods. First, the Tories used the global financial crisis as “a smokescreen for rolling back the state”. This then led to “a lazy, complacent veer from patriotism to nationalism” which resulted in our “botched exit from the European Union”. And finally, to maintain some popularity amid the general economic failure, the Government attempted to “import American-style divisions” into the country. As analysis, it is not very subtle, but it is revealing.
Logically, the period Starmer wants to unwind stretches back to 2010. Starmer wants to re-grow the state and to somehow end divisions about social and cultural questions. And yet now we have a fundamentally different economic and diplomatic settlement thanks to Brexit so we can’t just unwind the clock. What, then, is Labour going to do about this?
Starmer has five “missions” as he calls them: to secure the highest sustained growth in the G7; to make Britain a “clean energy superpower”; to build an NHS “fit for the future”; to make Britain’s streets safe; and to “break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage”. These missions are a kind of amalgamation of Thatcher’s “five tasks” and Blair’s “five pledges”.
But at the heart of it, an obvious question: can these missions be achieved outside the EU? If so, why did Starmer and his entire shadow cabinet go to such lengths to avoid leaving in the first place? If you can have the highest growth in the G7, great public services and energy independence, who cares about Erasmus or a few extra queues at passport control? Is Brexit at the heart of our national decline or not? You don’t need to be an expert to know that pretty much everyone in the Labour party thinks it is.
It is painfully obvious, given who Starmer promoted this week, that the party believes the problems facing Britain simply cannot be addressed without a fundamentally different relationship with the EU. If you were to ask the shadow cabinet privately whether they believed Brexit was a mistake that can only be mitigated and not exploited for Britain’s benefit, they would all surely agree. So how could we possibly sustainably grow our economy faster than France and Germany over the long term?
Take Hilary Benn, now shadow Northern Ireland secretary. It was Benn who gave us the “Benn Act” of 2019, barring the government from ever leaving the EU without an agreement. If Labour wins power, he will be responsible for the constant negotiation with the EU now required to make Northern Ireland function. Does anyone seriously doubt that Benn long ago concluded the only way to manage this situation is closer alignment between the UK as a whole and the EU? And so the inevitable question once again rears its head: if the UK voluntarily aligns with EU law, why not rejoin the EU to have a say over that law?
None of this is a major problem for Starmer now. Even though Thatcher was disciplined and measured in opposition, she was still seen by many as too ideological, lightweight, divisive and “shrill” — yet she still won. A tired and visionless Wilson won in 1974. You don’t have to be Blair in his prime to win power. What’s more, the Conservative Party is now so clearly devoid of a narrative of their own it may hardly matter.
And yet I think the lack of a clear Labour narrative goes some way to explaining the lack of hopeful anticipation in the nation at large. It is not clear what exactly Labour believes needs to be undone and, therefore, what will be fundamentally different. Starmer is offering quiet, incremental improvement — better management, leading to more economic growth and, in time, more money for public services. Part of this package will be a closer relationship with Europe and a greener economy, though one that will have to come into being more slowly than previously imagined because of the state of the public finances.
In some senses, Starmer reminds me of Angela Merkel more than any British political figure. Whether in terms of personal style, charisma, political nous or vision, she did not seem particularly impressive before becoming Chancellor in 2005. She was belittled by Gerhard Schröder, who would sometimes greet her speeches in the Bundestag with mocking laughter. Some of her advisers were far more economically Right-wing and there was just a general sense that she did not have a feel for public opinion. She was not a great campaigner, made near-fatal mistakes, and was seen as too stern and moralistic. Like Starmer, she had no obvious grand vision. But she won and governed for 15 years. What, though, has Germany got to show for it?