Conservatives must never be complacent about Starmer

Robert Halfon

GUEST POST: Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Is Keir Starmer doing that badly? I don’t want to rain on the parade of opinion poll Tory leads of anything from four to 13 per cent. Of course, it is far better to be in this position than trailing behind and our standing will be especially important in the run-up to local elections.

However, it is worth noting that Labour is still 24 points above its position after the 2019 General Election. It is also hard enough for any opposition party to get a look in, let alone in a national pandemic.

I remember well the Cameron opposition years, particularly when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair in 2007.

At the time, especially over the summer months, Labour rocketed ahead in public opinion. It looked like Labour’s fourth consecutive election victory was in the offing. Yet, by October of that year, thanks to an astonishing performance by George Osborne on slashing inheritance tax, David Cameron’s Conference speech, Brown’s poorly timed trip to see troops in Iraq and his botched scrapping of an early election, Conservatives level pegged and even leapfrogged Labour in the opinion polls.

I won’t ever forget going to the 2007 Conservative Party Conference as Harlow’s parliamentary candidate (by then, standing for a third time), thinking that it was all over – and I would not be elected to Westminster. A few days later, all had changed, and Brown put off the election until 2010. The rest is history. It was for me.

I was driving around one of Harlow’s many roundabouts when I first heard that Brown had cancelled the election. It was announced on the post-conference Saturday lunchtime news on Radio 4. I literally stopped my car, as I was utterly amazed. I thought to myself, “Well Rob, you might get elected after all”.

I mention these things – not to be, as the Prime Minister might say, a “gloomster” – but only to remind fellow Conservatives that politics changes, literally, overnight.

Yes, the Labour Leader is often “Captain Hindsight” and he doesn’t always see the wood from the trees because of his love for forensics. But, it is not easy for opposition leaders to cut through. To his credit, Starmer is reforming the Labour Party by stealth, slowly weeding out the far-left and trying to rid his party of antisemitism.

Of course, the crucial test will come in policy, and whether the Labour Party will be counter-intuitive on public spending. Of that, there is little sign. It appears that there is no lobby group or vested interest they will not try and court in order to score the political equivalent of a quick clickbait “high” in the media and the internet. At some point, Her Majesty’s Opposition will have to take tough decisions if they want to be respected by the public and be a party of Government.

Nevertheless, Conservatives must never be complacent. The public mood can change pretty quickly. Labour party grassroots and council strength remains high. They have a long time to reform themselves and undo the damage of the Corbyn years.

Explaining public spending decisions

It is not always easy to set out the tough decisions on public spending to constituents, especially when they regard emotive issues seen to address social injustice. But, once we have worked out what our political spending priorities are, this is something all Conservatives are going to have to do.

Due to the pandemic, Government finances and our general economic situation are pretty bleak. The Government is spending more than £400 billion just to keep people and businesses afloat. Our country faces a debt bill of over £2 trillion pounds. Laid out in cash, this is enough money to fill Wembley Stadium. The interest on the debt currently sits at £49 billion pounds a year (money which could otherwise be spent on public services or cutting the cost of living – like taxes – for small business and lower earners).

The hard truth of it is that every decision the Government takes on spending increases, whether it is wages or other spending (e.g. on welfare or public services), means that either we will either have to raise taxes – quite possibly income tax – or borrow more. If we keep borrowing, we will simply have more debt and interest to pay. Borrowing will also mean that we will not have any funds available if there is a further economic shock (as we saw in 2008), or even another pandemic.

The Government does not take these decisions to be unpopular and it may sometimes get things wrong. But choices are being made under the difficult economic and financial circumstances our country currently finds itself in.

The other issue is that millions of workers have lost their jobs or their incomes. The Government has to make certain that spending decisions do not increase the burden for workers through higher taxes. Whichever way we look, there are no simple answers.

It is easy for the political opposition parties to campaign for more funding and win themselves short-term popularity because they do not share any of the responsibility for the difficult spending decisions that the Government has to make.

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This piece was written for ConservativeHome.com.

Tories should fear Sir Keir – and figure how to beat him

GUEST POST: Peter Cardwell advised four Cabinet ministers in the May and Johnson administrations. He is the author of ‘The Secret Life of Special Advisers’, published on October 27. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

We’ve seen a lot of Keir Starmer this week: a Marr sit-down, a set-piece speech in lieu of a conference speech – in front of a handy physical red wall – and another strong performance at PMQs, understandably leading on test and trace. However, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Keir Starmer’s views. Would he back a future EU trade deal? Is he in favour of extending the transition period? Would he go for another Scottish independence referendum? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But, what I – as a Tory – do know is on a much more fundamental level he scares the living daylights out of me.   

His detoxification of the Labour brand is going just a bit too well. His new phrase “a new leadership” may be bland, however it is not meaningless. Because it is allowing Starmer, very effectively, to distance himself from the three greatest problems which dogged Corbyn: antisemitism, patriotism and security. 

On antisemitism, Starmer came down very hard on Rebecca Long-Bailey in June, sacking the former Shadow Education Secretary after she retweeted an article containing an antisemitic conspiracy theory. Helpfully for Starmer, John McDonnell stood in solidarity with her. Starmer looked decisive, leaderly and even gained praise from the Board of Deputies. 

On patriotism, can you honestly imagine Corbyn reacting to the “Rule, Britannia!” row with a strong defence of the “pomp and pageantry” as “a staple of British summer”? Thought not. 

And on security – Corbyn’s weakest issue – at PMQs three weeks ago Starmer reacted with genuine fury when Boris Johnson suggested Starmer was soft on terrorism because he had backed Corbyn. Starmer’s record as Director of Public Prosecutions speaks for itself, and Labour strategists plan to remind the public often of their leader’s key role in prosecuting the terrorists who planned the Heathrow bomb plot, ‘Britain’s 9/11’. And it’s no accident that Starmer returned to this theme in his leader’s address on Monday. There could hardly be a less Corbyn phrase than expressing a desire for: “security for our nation, our families and all of our communities… We love this country as you do.” 

In fairness, we Conservatives have had it good for so long when it comes to Opposition leaders.  Ed Miliband was a man who couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich effectively, never mind run a country. Jeremy Corbyn was popular with people who didn’t come out to vote and scared away many sensible people who did into voting Conservative. Along with Dominic Cummings and bearded Antipodean svengali Isaac Levido, Corbyn was one of we Conservatives’ three greatest assets in December’s election. 

And despite his lack of charisma, his slightly plodding manner and a front bench a little too full of unknowns, Starmer continues to subtly, slowly put clear red water between himself and his predecessor. This brand detoxification is the hugely important first step. 

So much so that CCHQ attacks on Starmer have been linking him to Corbyn, just as Republicans attack Joe Biden by linking him to the more toxic Hillary Clinton. That’s just not strong enough a strategy, and the Conservative operation will need to work harder. Starmer has certainly got me worried. And that’s why we Conservatives need to start planning how to beat him in 2024 right now. 

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This piece was written for The Times.

Red wall, blue sea

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications

In the end, it wasn’t even close. The polls had showed Labour closing the gap in the final few days of the campaign, but there was no surge. Soufflés really don’t rise twice, and the ‘magic grandpa’ had lost his sparkle.

The CCHQ team had always wanted this to be an election focused on Brexit, and they largely got their way. But it was not just about the principle of Brexit itself. Most people wanted Brexit out of the headlines and off of the front pages, but they also wanted the normal functioning of government to resume. 

But perhaps even more important was the issue of trust. If you promise not to raise tuition fees and then treble them, as the Liberal Democrats did in 2010, then you get hammered. If you stand on a manifesto to respect the result of the EU referendum, as both Labour and the Lib Dems did in 2017, and then you constantly seek to block Brexit, then you get hammered.

The fact that much of the discontent with the non-delivery of Brexit was concentrated in the neglected Labour heartlands of the Midlands and the North acted as a double whammy. People in those regions wanted Brexit delivered, but they had originally voted for Brexit because they felt neglected by Westminster, and ignored by the Labour Party. So like Trump supporters in the ’fly over’ states of the US they refused to change their minds, and they demanded to be heard.

There was also poor targeting on the part of Labour. Both the party machine and the parallel Momentum organisation concentrated their resources on Corbynista candidates, rather than on those who most needed support. This cost them unity, and it cost them votes, and it cost them seats. The fall-out from this will rumble on for months, if not years.

By contrast CCHQ did a great job. When it came to strategy Isaac Levido provided calm, whilst Dominic Cummings – as ever – provided inspiration. The cyber war was master-minded by two young kiwis, Sean Topham and Ben Guerin. Meantime the mainstream media was effectively marshalled by Lee Cain and Rob Oxley and a team of experienced press officers, many of whom had worked for Boris on and off over the years since his first mayoral bid.

But the main reason Labour lost and we won was because of the respective leaders. Boris came across as a dynamic leader with a strong focus and clear priorities – including, of course, getting Brexit done. Of course there were mis-steps, including pocketing a journalists phone and escaping in to a walk-in fridge. But generally Boris came across well, with his trademark good humour and with his bright young politically-engaged partner by his side. Parading Dilyn the rescue dog also worked well – an estimated 9.9 million households in the UK own a dog.

By contrast Jeremy Corbyn came across as old, tired, testy, petulant – and (more importantly) nasty. He may not be an anti-semite himself, but he certainly seems to enjoy the company of people who are. This cost him votes not just in the handful of seats with large Jewish populations, but also amongst the wider electorate, who hate discrimination and loathe bullies.

So, the fabled ‘red wall’ has crumbled, and it has been replaced by a ‘blue sea’. And let’s face it, seas are stronger and more durable than walls. Now the task – fully recognised by CCHQ and Number Ten – is to justify the faith placed in us by all those former Labour supporters who loaned us their votes in order to ‘get Brexit done’, and to keep Corbyn out of Number Ten.

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This piece was written for our website.