Gloomy Labour Loses Hope as Boris Johnson Upends U.K. Politics
(Bloomberg) -- Senior figures in Keir Starmer’s U.K. opposition Labour Party already see little hope of winning back power in the next general election as many as three years away.
One Labour official privately gave the party “zero” chance of beating Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, while a member of Starmer’s top team in Parliament gloomily called it an “uphill battle.” They and others spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
The problem Labour officials see is the near-impossible task of competing with Johnson, a man who has upended the rules of normal politics.
The British premier has emerged relatively unscathed from the pandemic, despite Britain recording more than 128,000 deaths, the highest toll in Europe. He’s also batted away allegations over his integrity and competence, including from his own former top aide, while his Health Secretary Matt Hancock resigned this week after breaching Covid restrictions he helped design.
Faced with a politician some have dubbed “Teflon,” a realization is dawning at the top of Labour that the party may just have to wait out Johnson’s appeal in the medium-term, until his support naturally begins to ebb away.
Labour is actively planning for Johnson to call the next national poll in 2023, a year earlier than required by law, to capitalize on the U.K.’s vaccination program and return to normal life following the pandemic.
Yet others at Labour headquarters worry the party is simply “ticking along” with Starmer at the helm, failing to set out the bold vision and big policies needed to get people’s attention.
Those fears are likely to grow if Labour loses a key parliamentary election in northern England on Thursday. A defeat in Batley and Spen would trigger fresh calls for a rethink of Labour’s strategy, and possibly leadership.
But it is no ordinary contest. The election has been marred by tensions, just five years after Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a right-wing extremist in the run up to the Brexit referendum. One senior Labour official said it had been the one of the most hateful by-elections in recent history.
Cox’s sister, Kim Leadbeater, is Labour’s candidate and has faced abuse over the party’s approach to gay rights and Palestine. Starmer has blamed the “poisonous politics” of George Galloway, a former Labour MP who’s standing for the Workers Party -- a charge he rejects.
Johnson’s Conservatives are on course to take the seat from Labour, which has held it since 1997, according to a Survation poll this month. The election was triggered when the incumbent MP became a regional mayor.
It comes weeks after Johnson’s party took Hartlepool, a seat Labour had held since it was created in 1974. That continued a trend of Tory inroads into Labour’s former heartlands, which helped Johnson to an 80-seat parliamentary majority in 2019.
Yet even if Labour loses, Starmer is not expected to hit reset. He’s planning summer events with voters and businesses across Britain, and will focus on “bread and butter” issues including raising school standards, creating jobs and fighting crime.
Party officials say the challenge is how to oppose the government without being seen as overly negative and bleak -- setting out its own brand of optimism while criticizing what they see as Johnson’s failings.
Johnson is not “untouchable” and politics can change fast, a senior ally of Starmer insisted. People are willing to give the premier a “long lead” but that won’t last forever, they said.
There are plans to get Starmer on TV more in the coming weeks -- one ally joked he’s on better form when he swaps his white shirt for a navy one -- and his recent interview with ITV’s Piers Morgan was seen as a success.
September’s party conference is also seen as a critical moment for reshaping public opinion.
Some MPs say his vision still isn’t clear enough. Ordinary voters “didn’t know what Keir Starmer stood for,” his own deputy, Angela Rayner, told the BBC after Labour’s election drubbing last month.
Privately, some MPs fear Starmer lacks the political instincts for the top job. He entered Parliament in 2015 after a long legal career and has carefully praised both Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Blair -- on opposite ends of Labour’s political spectrum -- as excellent party leaders.
His meticulous approach is often better suited to the House of Commons chamber than public walkabouts. It’s the opposite of Johnson, whose charisma has helped him see off allegations of missteps in the pandemic, from dithering over lockdowns to his use of language about Covid victims.
Starmer’s allies denied that a recent shake-up of his top team was in response to criticism over his performance. Both his director and deputy director of communications -- Ben Nunn and Paul Ovenden -- left last week but both insist it was for personal reasons.
His closest aide Jenny Chapman -- under fire from MPs over election strategy -- became the party’s Brexit spokesperson in the House of Lords, and chief of staff Morgan McSweeney moved sideways to focus more on strategy and less on management.
Matthew Doyle, who worked for Labour under Blair, has been appointed interim communications director.
It’s not clear if Starmer will face a leadership challenge before the next general election, but he certainly will if he loses it. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and London Mayor Sadiq Khan are seen as possible successors.
The left of the party argues a Corbyn-backing MP such as Zarah Sultana would help reverse a decline in grassroots membership under Starmer.
Starmer’s challenge is to win supporters back -- and fast.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.