Keir Starmer should prepare for a Labor coup

As the two remaining Conservative leadership candidates continue to knock lumps out of each other, there is a natural temptation to think that Labor leader Keir Starmer must be sitting pretty. With Rishi Sunak having gone in particularly hard against the almost-certain winner Liz Truss, describing her economic strategy as “not moral…and not Conservative” and claiming that she is bound to lose the next election, Starmer is certainly entitled to a quiet poolside smile on his family holiday.

After all, there is no disputing that in general the downfall of one major party leader is a battle honor for the other, implying the attainment of a certain level of authority. Tony Blair saw off four opposite numbers – John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard – while Theresa May saw off no-one and almost made Jeremy Corbyn prime minister.

But if Sir Keir is any good at reading the political game – and the jury is still out on that score – then he will know that a very bumpy period awaits him. The great political Eye of Sauron has nearly completed its current Tory project and its gaze is about to alight upon the woes of Labour.

Past experience tells us that a new prime minister almost always gets a honeymoon period with the electorate. Even the turgid May and Gordon Brown were stratospherically popular at the outset of their premierships. So it is unlikely to matter that Liz Truss is, as she puts it, “not the slickest of communicators”, nor even that she will take office in the midst of a painful economic crisis, as long as she lays out eye-catching plans to address it. And an emergency Budget is bound to do just that.

Indeed, there is already polling evidence suggesting that the days of frothy double-figure Labor poll leads are coming to an end. Three weeks ago the Politico website’s Poll of Polls, which gives the best indication of overall public opinion, showed Labor maintaining an average ten-point lead. That is already down to seven points and the trend line is clearly running against Labour, while a YouGov poll this week found it has shrunk to a single point with Labor down at 35 per cent – ​​five points below the share won by Corbyn in the 2017 general election.

Party leader ratings are turning against Starmer again too, with polling by Redfield & Wilton Strategies this week finding that Truss has already overtaken him on the question of who would make a better PM and that she is on a sharply upward path. Moreover, with a Truss premiership holding out the prospect of bolder approaches on illegal immigration, the Northern Ireland Protocol and tax cuts there is every chance of her quickly pulling disenchanted right-of-centre voters back into the Tory polling column.

If everything were hunky dory in the Labor camp then this might not present too much of a problem. Starmer could just tell his party to stay calm, ride it out and wait for the winter energy bills to land with a mighty thud on doormats. But the trouble for him is that the mood towards him within his party is already very fractious. Senior frontbenchers continue to brief against him as far as his personal performance goes, while the Left of the party is aflame with fury after largely electing him leader on the basis of a set of radical socialist pledges that he has now dumped.

Truss will present Starmer with an entirely different challenge from an ailing Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions when. He is only one under-powered performance away from a full-blown crisis. And yet, oddly, the thing that is most likely to preserve him is the early potency of Truss.

Now that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is no more, the timing of a general election is once again a prime ministerial prerogative. It is pretty unlikely that Ms Truss would gamble on an autumn election to win her a mandate of her own from voters – if it went wrong her premiership might not even get past 100 days – but it is far from impossible. Labor MPs will have noticed there is a certain wildness in her gaze, suggestive of unpredictability.

And yet, were Labor to dump Starmer and lurch into a protracted leadership contest it would risk the prospect of Truss calling a general election while it was a rudderless shambles with literally nobody to sell to voters as a prime minister-in-waiting. So therefore Starmer will almost certainly get to plod on, underwhelming large swathes of the electorate and with little to suggest he is someone who can turn 200 Labor seats into more than 300 in one go.

The Tory grandee Willie Whitelaw once joked that Labor was “going around the country stirring up apathy”. For most of his tenure at the head of the party, that description has been apt for Keir Starmer too. He did quite well out of his bit-part in the defenestration of Boris Johnson, but it is about to become so again.

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