Steadfast Starmer looks to turn Britain red in six weeks

Labour leader's hard-fighting past as a lawyer gives him the edge as Rishi Sunak seeks to achieve mission impossible

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If Rishi Sunak is fighting the election as the underdog, then he is up against an opponent who knows how to scrap hard from the lower reaches of British society.

Keir Starmer’s early life was not a privileged one, with a mother who had a cruelly debilitating disease and a distant father who was a toolmaker as well as her main carer.

He had to grind his way through education, earning a scholarship when Reigate Grammar School turned private, then push on through a modest university and into law school, before achieving his ambition to become a barrister.

An ability to push uphill, to fight for tenants rather than landlords, or for eco-activists against giant companies such as McDonald’s culminated in him becoming Director of Public Prosecutions.

But he was looking for more, so he took the political path under the red flag of Labour and entered Parliament in 2015, aged 52. He pushed through the quagmire of Jeremy Corbyn’s bewildering hard-left leadership before taking over Labour in 2020 in the middle of a pandemic.

Since then, the politician with a fondness for navy blue suits has carefully tacked his party away from its questionable left-wing policies firmly to the centre ground, where British elections are won.

What firms up Mr Starmer’s centrist position even more, and is an inbuilt advantage for the subsequent general election to be held by 2029, is his close monitoring of Labour candidates to ensure the far left is absent.

Grind on

He has ridden out the charismatic but insulting tirades of Boris Johnson and sparred evenly with Mr Sunak’s immense intelligence and preparation.

As a lawyer, Mr Starmer is seen as excellent on detail, methodical and professional, but without former party leader and prime minister Tony Blair’s charisma.

He will make more of a technocrat prime minister, similar to the well-intentioned Mr Sunak, with a desire to get things done rather than be popular.

Essentially, all that he needs to do over the next six weeks to flip Britain from Conservative to Labour is to keep that grim grind going for Labour’s march to power.

Part of that is not allowing any misstep to unseat his campaign, such as the self-inflicted “dementia tax” blow to Theresa May’s 2017 campaign, which led to her entering the race 20 points ahead of Labour and winning by fewer than three.

Caution will be Labour’s byword, in a six-week campaign that sources say has been well-drilled to keep the party on a tightly controlled path to power.

Mr Starmer knows he lacks the popular appeal of Mr Blair that energised voters in 1997 but he still has a chance of repeating the 400-seat landslide if he can mobilise the Labour vote.

That is not entirely guaranteed with so many voters simply fed up or uninspired by both main parties and so many of Britain's four million Muslims dissatisfied by Labour’s stance on Gaza.

Conservative catastrophe?

The advantage of being able to call the precise date of the election will not have been lost on Mr Sunak, who apparently made the decision for the July 4 poll more than a month ago.

He knew then and knows now that he has an enormous battle ahead to close the gap on Labour, which had grown to 23 points in the latest poll.

One low-end calculation suggests the Conservatives could end up with only 30 seats, an apocalyptic loss from the current 344.

Mr Sunak must therefore have a plan to avoid that catastrophe and persuade enough people that the Conservatives under him remain a safe, sensible choice.

British Conservative voters do not loudly proclaim their allegiance, meaning the “silent Tory” could well keep many MPs in office.

But there are not that many shy Conservatives in the re-industrialised northern towns, known as the Red Wall seats, of switching Labour supporters who voted overwhelmingly for Boris Johnson’s Brexit promises.

One prediction suggests the Conservatives could lose 40 out of the 44 Red Wall seats, with Labour given a one-in-three chance of winning more than 400 seats.

Rishi’s bridge

So what can Rishi Sunak do in what is probably his last six weeks as Britain’s Prime Minister, to bridge that fissure and avoid election wipeout?

A glimmer of good news came on the first day of campaigning after the anti-immigration populist Nigel Farage announced he would not stand for a parliamentary seat for Reform UK.

Reform is the hand grenade that could detonate under Mr Sunak’s campaign by drawing away Tories dissatisfied by the government’s inability to bring immigration under control.

Without Mr Farage, Reform will not have a celebrity and popular – to some at least – figurehead, perhaps allowing the Conservatives to retain a number of seats.

Indeed, one estimate shows that if the Conservatives narrow the Labour lead to 15 per cent, that would give them a one-in-10 chance of victory in Britain’s first-past-the-post election system.

Poll momentum

There is therefore potential for Mr Sunak to seek some momentum from the first opinion polls expected early next week, if those secret Tories show their colours.

“Those polls will be really interesting because the election is no longer hypothetical, so the public will have to make a choice rather than an apathetic ‘don’t know’,” said Chris Hopkins of the Savanta polling company.

The recovering economy might also cut through, too. Mr Sunak announced the election on the day inflation hit its lowest level in three years, of 2.3 per cent.

The mini-recession is over and on June 20 the Bank of England could announce an interest rate cut that might make homeowners with mortgages think better of the government.

The election is no longer hypothetical, so the public will have to make a choice rather than an apathetic ‘don’t know’
Chris Hopkins

Under the much-debated, and indeed criticised Rwanda deportation plan, which Labour says it will ditch, the first aircraft could soon take off carrying failed asylum seekers, although Mr Sunak has played this down.

Sadly for him, there is no time for him to achieve a reduction in the National Health Service waiting lists.

Football vote

Mr Sunak appears to be playing the underdog to draw people away from Labour and to sympathise with him in a long-shot bid to get a hung parliament, where no party has a majority, to hinder Labour’s plans for government.

And, of course, he could hope that both England and Scotland will progress well in the Euro 2024 championships that start on June 14, although if they fare badly that could only add to his woes.

However, if the polls have not shifted within the next four weeks, then “the clock is really, really running out for him by that point”, said Mr Hopkins.

That will mean Mr Starmer’s steady grind towards taking Labour back to power for the first time since 2010 will have succeeded.

Updated: May 27, 2024, 4:47 AM