March 1, 2024 - 4:15pm

As Keir Starmer gazes upon the wreckage of the Rochdale by-election he must be wondering what to do next. Should he give in to his internal critics and soften Labour’s line on issues like international relations and immigration? Or should he double down and make a point of defying the Labour Left?

If he’s in search of inspiration he could turn to this week’s Financial Times interview with the Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen. Arguably the toughest leader in Western Europe, she’s already famous — or infamous — for her hardline immigration policies, which include Singapore-style limits on the number of immigrants in any particular neighbourhood.

As for defence policy, she believes that Europe must “step up and scale up” its military capabilities in the face of a threat which she sees as coming from Russia as a whole, not just Putin. She’s clear that sacrifices must be made, warning that “freedom comes with a price.” If we devote more to defence, then we must devote less to other priorities including welfare: “you cannot spend your penny, or your dollar, or your euro, or your krone two times.”

Margaret Thatcher would approve, and yet Denmark’s Iron Lady is not a conservative but — like Starmer — a social democrat.

The two leaders start from different positions, of course. Frederiksen did not have an easy path to power: in 2019 she eked a narrow victory at the head of a less-than-reliable Left-wing coalition. Starmer, on the other hand, is set for a landslide win and only has his own party to worry about.

But that’s where his comfortable ride ends. In office, he’ll realise there’s no money left, but endless urgent priorities to spend it on. What’s more, he may find himself moving into Downing Street just as Donald Trump returns to the White House — which would mean an immediate crisis for Nato given Trump’s disdain for the transatlantic alliance.

Unlike Tony Blair, who could afford to massively increase spending on public services while simultaneous embroiling Britain in wars beyond the boundaries of Europe, Starmer will be forced to make hard choices from the very beginning.

He must therefore decide between three approaches. Either he can govern in denial of the constraints he’s under (like Liz Truss); or he can muddle through ineffectually (like Rishi Sunak); or he can lean into adversity and make himself a tough leader for tough times (like Frederiksen).

Immigration is perhaps the most immediate test. On becoming prime minister, Starmer could scrap the Rwanda scheme, but would then come under intense pressure to stop the small boats by other means. As for legal immigration, he’ll either have to bring about a drastic cut in the record numbers or explain how UK housing stock and public services can support millions of extra people over the coming decade. It’s becoming clear that the current rate of population increase is financially unsustainable, but the emergency brake required in response would put Starmer on a collision course with factions of his own party.

Again, the Frederiksen example is instructive. Her party supported her strict immigration policies, but Danish coalition politics left her vulnerable to other parties such as the Social Liberals, the Green Left and the Red-Green Alliance. Rather than juggle with those balls, Frederiksen used her second election victory in 2022 to drop her Left-wing allies and form a coalition government with two parties from the centre and centre-Right.

Could something analogous happen with Starmer? If things get tough, could he end up relying on a centrist block of MPs to push through unpopular, but necessary, measures?

Of course, his first choice would be to rely on a Left-ish, woke-ish and united Labour Party. But if things get rough, his ideological preferences may well come second to his preference for power.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.