Last week was tough for UK Tories, but Starmer cannot let his guard down yet

The local race results provided a blueprint for what Brits can expect in the general elections ahead

Starmer has projected a persona of 'modest competence' as opposition leader. AFP
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Keir Starmer faces his trickiest period having now entered the prime minister presumptive phase in charge of the British opposition. One thing will haunt him for the weeks ahead. Sheffield, 1992.

It was there the catch cry was send out: “We’re alright.” Interpreted as an act of triumphalism, it fell flat as an eve of polling celebration. With one hand on the trophy, it is best to concentrate on getting over the line, not already savour possession.

Rishi Sunak can appreciate the small margins that make up political catastrophe or not after local elections in the UK last Thursday. The outcome was a disaster for Mr Sunak but not, it appears, such a calamity that the Conservatives will rebel and chuck him out. Survival was the first order of business.

One incumbent survival of the mayor of Tees Valley Ben Houchen was enough to generate a victory headline for Mr Sunak. Subsequently worn away by the loss of London and the West Midlands, it still blunted the head of steam behind the rebels on his own side.

The experts projected share of the vote was Labour 34 per cent and Conservative 25. Good if you compare it to YouGov’s 44-18 gap between the two parties.

The extended drama around Andy Street eventually losing in the West Midlands provides a platform for continued rebel manoeuvres. The Conservatives won slightly more than 500 seats and lost slightly below that number.

If the Conservatives wanted a lifeline, here we go. They have a "backs to wall" narrative to pave a path to the general election.

In the first instance Mr Starmer, already a cautious political performer, will be haunted by the example of Neil Kinnock, his predecessor who was cruising to victory in 1992.

Not for a moment can Mr Starmer let his guard down. Mr Kinnock once recalled that rally at Sheffield where he let it slip it away. It was just a week before the election and, by Mr Kinnock’s telling, the gaffe came about by accident.

A new choreography for the event had been decided at the last minute. Mr Kinnock later told the BBC he should have put his foot down but went along with the new plan.

Having his senior colleagues march into the 11,000 arena through the crowd energised the room into a rally. And then his efforts to bring the crowd to order came across as an engorged gloat on the TV screens of the nation.

”There was a sort of tangible political heat coming off it, I guess that looked triumphalist, and I cursed the person - I knew who he was - and I took him aside afterwards and gave him a few choice remarks for changing those arrangements," Mr Kinnock recalled in 2017. "So instead of modest competence, which is what I wanted to portray, and most of the campaign did, we had this entry into the arena."

Modest competence is exactly Mr Starmer’s offer to the UK. It is also the lifeline that Mr Sunak is seeking to pursue as well.

For Mr Sunak in 2024 read John Major in 1992. He, too, was holding together a divided party reeling internally from leadership heaves.

A struggling economy is another common factor more than three decades on.

It is too late for a general election as far away as November to be about anything other than dividing lines like migration and the policy on Palestine-Israel

The incumbent prime minister is married into a billionaire family. Yet he has a Barbour jacket plainness that creates the smallest possible target for the opposition to hit, especially compared to the radical rivals who are jockeying to oust him on his own side.

Mr Major had his soapbox that he plonked in village squares as he led a backs to the wall comeback. Mr Sunak can take the local election results as a corner turned, whether or not it really has the seeds of a rescue.

Going to the people means taking control of the agenda and attempting to paint the Labour narrative as victory already.

The vulnerabilities are the rise of Reform from the right to attract Conservative votes and the independents on the left, most motivated by Gaza and the Labour leadership policy, who now have time to coalesce. No one is suggesting these forces will have an equal effect but George Galloway could be as much part of the general election as Nigel Farage and his flunkies.

It is too late for a general election as far away as November to be about anything other than dividing lines like migration and the policy on Palestine-Israel. For the Conservatives the last 10 days of the local election campaign were the blueprint. The news agenda was dominated by forced deportations to Rwanda and a sense of an urgent rally against despicable influx.

Mr Starmer’s crawl along the knife edge ridge that leads to power must be built to withstand the ugly and ruthless pitch to the country that his rivals will make. That’s even with Mr Sunak at the helm.

It must also demonstrate the vigilance that Mr Kinnock forfeited for one fateful moment. The man in Barbour jacket will be there to capitalise on any mistake. Call it grubbing for every vote. Nothing else matters.

Despite the state of the nation, there is a knock down fight ahead that will give no clue on how the country should shift direction for better times ahead.

Published: May 05, 2024, 9:45 AM