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.

Damian Collins on “Rule, Britannia!”

Damian Collins

GUEST POST: Damian Collins is the Conservative MP for Folkestone and Hythe. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Nearly nineteen years ago, on September 15, 2001, I watched along with a group of friends the Last Night of the Proms, broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall to giant screens in London’s Hyde Park. This was just four days after the tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US and the decision was correctly taken to change the running order to reflect the public mood in reaction to these terrible events. For the finale, before the singing of the hymn “Jerusalem”, we heard Michael Tippett’s “A Child of Our Time” and part of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, instead of the usual singing of “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule, Britannia!”

In recent years, I have been fortunate to attend the Last Night of the Proms in person, and I enjoy the music and traditions of this great spectacle and much as any of its enthusiasts. The event has become a national institution culminating in the performance of “Rule Britannia”, “Land of Hope and Glory” as well as “Jerusalem”. In fact, the decision to change the arrangement of the music in 2001 signified the strength of this institution, making it a significant act of reverence and respect.

There has been an argument in the last week about proposed changes to this year’s Last Night of the Proms, which will mean that “Rule, Britannia!” and “Land of Hope of Glory” will be played, but not sung. The reasoning for this is not entirely clear, and it is certainly not the result of a debate or consultation with viewers. There has been a suggestion that this is because some people regard the performance of these songs as out-dated and even that some of the words are offensive. People are of course entitled to their opinion, but so too are the millions of people who have enjoyed these performances over the years.

Great words and music that become part of our national culture, based on the significance people have attached to them over many years, often centuries, should not be lightly discarded.

Often, they have been rallying cries calling people to put personal interests aside for the greater good to their community and nation. The words of the French anthem, “La Marseillaise”, might seem somewhat out of touch to some modern ears, when it calls the people of France to arms against tyranny and to water the fields of the nation with the blood of the ‘impure’ foreign invaders. In the context of the time, the song was a rallying defence in the revolutionary wars of the late eighteenth century, but surely its greater significance today is as an anthem that has been a constant focal point for a nation through more recent triumphs and tragedies. “Rule, Britannia!” was written in 1740 by Thomas Arne as part of a musical about King Alfred the Great, England’s first king, who united a divided nation in defence against a foreign invader. The words of the song recount how Britain’s strength would mean that it could resist invasion from a tyrant, and indeed that power would be significant in our nation’s role in abolishing the slave trade in the nineteenth century. For 280 years it has been performed and enjoyed, invoking confidence in the future and a sense of shared and common purpose. These are qualities that are needed for all times, and particularly our own.

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This piece was written for Damian’s website.

Don’t mention the C-word!

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications

Great Britain? Seemingly, the British are even ‘great’ at censoring and cancelling, rather than conserving, things. The shame! Certain foods, people, statues and words – there are too many to cite – have all made the banned inventory. Now, as reported in The Sunday Times, “The BBC is discussing whether to drop “Rule, Britannia!” and “Land of Hope and Glory” from the Last Night of the Proms in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.” Don’t even go there, my friend.

Be that as it may, I do like a good trend and – since absolutely everyone’s doing it – I’m going to jump on the bandwagon. Let’s ban that hideous C-word… No, not that one! Nor conservatives, communications, Christianity or cancer. I’m referring to Coronavirus, Covid-19, or as President Trump (and others) often refer to it: the China, or sometimes Chinese, virus. You’ll be glad to know this blog isn’t about semantics.

Whatever your preferred turn of phrase, the alternative Big C has overtaken the weather and Brexit as the most talked about topic – of the year, decade, century and perhaps millennium – and is no doubt the biggest trend in Google search history. It’s all our relatives, friends, colleagues and clients are discussing. Whenever you switch on the radio, pick up a newspaper or scroll social media – morning, noon or night – it’s there. Non-stop. Enough already!

As much as I wanted to take part in the Great British Staycation (with God as my witness) – I had my heart set on South Wales or Cornwall – we decided to swap England for A Room with a View in Italy to avoid the perpetual drip, drip, drip of doom and gloom. I’m guessing Boris, Carrie, Wilfred and Dylan are wishing they’d done the same too! What a sad state of affairs that the British Prime Minister can’t enjoy a break in these Isles after a very eventful few months.

And so, we headed to Lombardy – the European epicentre of the disease – and from there we toured Umbria, Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. Here’s the thing: the Italians have mastered face-covering and hand-washing; they’ve incorporated them into daily life. Few moan about it. The same cannot be said of Italian driving: indicating is an optional activity and tail-gating remains a national pastime! Point being, the Italians are living again and Brits should follow suit.

It’s great that folk are taking advantage of the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme (which is due to run out next Monday), retail sales are above pre-pandemic levels and some businesses are encouraging employees to go back to the office. Oh my goodness we need to crack on dot com. But, while the government, companies and media have roles to play in setting the mood, planning for the future and not sensationalising news, individuals need to accept some personal responsibility. In my opinion, it starts by banning the C-word!*

*I realise this isn’t a realistic proposition, however.

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This piece was written for our website.