Several recent U-turns have raised questions about the Labour leader's vision
Has Sir Keir Starmer lost his bottle? Mail on Sunday columnist Dan Hodges thinks so, referring to the Labour leader as “gripped by fear”. How else can one explain the unforced retreats of recent weeks?
For instance, there was the U-turn on the two-child benefit cap — a Tory austerity measure that everyone thought Labour would scrap. We can’t afford to, concluded Starmer, thus earning himself a new soubriquet from the online Left: “Sir Kid Starver”. Then there’s his readiness to blame the Ulez expansion for Labour’s failure to win the Uxbridge by-election. The party leader can’t actually order Sadiq Khan to rethink this policy, but he’s putting him under intense pressure to do so. Most recently, the Shadow Cabinet has reversed its stance on transgender issues. We don’t yet know whether Starmer still believes in the male cervix, but at least Rosie Duffield has received an apology (albeit from Wes Streeting rather than Starmer himself).
Is all of this just fancy footwork from a clever politician? Or is Hodges right to describe Starmer’s recent re-positioning as a “series of panicked spasms”. Really, a closer look shows that the Labour leader has every reason to be afraid.
First of all, the by-election results suggest that it’s voter discontent, not love for Labour, which explains the latter’s lead in the polls. In Uxbridge, it didn’t take much to redirect this unhappiness.
As for the child benefit U-turn, Starmer realises what many of his MPs have yet to accept, which is that, financially, the next Labour government is already stuffed. It’s all in the latest “Fiscal Risks and Sustainability” report from the Office for Budget Responsibility. The gist is that Britain is broke for the next fifty years. It’s not just unfunded tax cuts off the agenda, but unfunded spending commitments too.
Denied the opportunity to splash the cash, one option for Starmer could be to go broke for woke instead, placating the progressive Left wing of his party. Yet the more that the public gets to hear about the trans agenda, the less they like it — hence Labour’s reverse ferret on the issue.
And yet for all the back-pedalling of recent weeks, it would be a mistake to confuse Starmer’s state of mind with panic. Panicking people behave chaotically, but there’s clearly method in Sir Keir’s madness. Realising that a storm lies ahead of him, he’s jettisoning everything he doesn’t need while he still can.
This is the least worst time to do so. Yes, he’s upsetting his colleagues — but he can console them with a twenty-point Labour lead. As for disappointing the public by dropping spending pledges, that’s best done before he puts them in a manifesto.
Starmer is not a man of excessive conviction. He’s not a visionary or a prophet or a great communicator. But he is an accomplished tactician. He understands that it will never be easier for him to make difficult decisions than it is now. So, for the moment, expect the fancy footwork to continue.