Suddenly, Keir Starmer has become Britain’s prime minister in waiting. The catastrophic opening weeks of Liz Truss’s premiership has utterly transformed the political weather. Labour’s slow recovery after the disastrous Corbyn years has been turbocharged by the new Tory leader and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. Labour now enjoys a poll lead of up to 33 percent, and is seen by many as the inevitable victor in the next general election, which must be held by January 2025.
Truss and Kwarteng destroyed the Conservatives’ reputation as careful custodians of the British economy with their budget on 23 September. The markets hated the way the former party of sound money planned to borrow billions to fund tax cuts, on top of existing promises to reduce the increase in energy bills and the debt built up during the pandemic. The pound approached parity with the US dollar, and pension funds faced insolvency. Mortgage lenders withdrew home loans from the market as interest rates looked set to soar to protect the value of the pound. Millions of people are worried about the consequences, and blame the already unpopular Tories.
Labour has often been portrayed as the party that presides over financial crises when in government. The party devalued the pound in 1949 and 1967, and famously had to ask the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan in 1976. (Ironically, it turned out that Britain’s finances weren’t as bad as the Treasury warned, and the loan wasn’t needed after all.) Now, it’s a Tory government that is damned by association with the IMF, as the international lender of last resort condemned the party’s budget.
Governments rarely bounce back from financial humiliations like this. Thirty years ago this autumn, John Major’s Tory government suffered a fatal blow to its reputation after Britain crashed out of the European exchange rate mechanism on Black Wednesday. Major had just won an unexpected general election victory, and after the ERM disaster presided over a strong economic recovery leading up to the 1997 election. But there was no political recovery: Labour won a landslide, and Major’s party lost more seats (178) than it won (165 seats). The Conservatives were out of power for 13 years, losing by another landslide in 2001 and more narrowly in 2005.
2024: Tories out for a generation?
Just a year ago, Labour seemed as far away from power than ever. Yet now people are seriously talking about the Tories facing an existential threat. First Boris Johnson shattered the notion that his party was on the side of integrity. Now Truss has destroyed its old reputation as the party of sound money. It’s no longer fanciful to believe Labour may be on the eve of its longest time in government. Is Keir Starmer the leader to go one up on Clement Attlee (six years in power), Harold Wilson (eight years in total) and Tony Blair (10 years)?
It’s possible. Keir Starmer’s strategy has been vindicated by the events of the past year. After the Johnson and Truss melodramas, his calmness and seriousness suddenly seem very appealing to the electorate, just as grey John Major was a refreshing change from the histrionics of Margaret Thatcher, at least until the Black Wednesday ERM crisis. Starmer now has the nation’s attention. He can make his case for Labour as the party of fiscal responsibility, contrasting with the financial recklessness of Liz Truss.
Labour in government: the recipe for recovery
Labour will have an unenviable inheritance in 2024, unlike in 1997. The economy will remain in dire straits. Brexit will continue to cripple Britain’s exporters, and frustrate the nation’s travellers at international borders. The cost of living will remain painfully high.
Yet a Starmer government has a golden opportunity. Just as the Blair government staged a surprise by announcing it was making the Bank of England independent of government control, so Keir Starmer could spring a surprise even more transformative for the nation’s prospects. In its first month, it could announce that Britain was rejoining the European single market and customs union. This would end the years of hostility between the UK and the EU. It would boost economic growth at a stroke and improve productivity: an end to all that pointless red tape and queues at Dover and other international borders. Tensions in Northern Ireland would be eased. And if anyone dares say this was not what the British people voted for in the 2016 referendum, remind them that the leading Brexiters said the UK would remain in the single market after Brexit.
A more grown up government
Tony Blair was Labour’s greatest election winner. Yet he had a mixed record in government. His successes (peace in Northern Ireland, home rule for Wales and Scotland, the national minimum wage and investment in public services) were formidable. But constitutional changes aside, his first term was underwhelming. He did not take advantage of the huge majorities in 1997 and 2001, as if unaware of Labour’s convincing mandate. Sticking to Tory spending targets in that first four years was a lost opportunity – and his second term was derailed by the disastrous decision to join American president George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
I believe that Starmer will make better use of a convincing majority than Blair, who had never run anything before becoming prime minister on 2 May 1997. It is astounding how New Labour’s hegemony turned to dust after 13 years in power, not least because of the global financial crisis of 2008. Starmer has the chance to establish firmer foundations. He’s unlikely to indulge in the sugar rush of chasing newspaper headlines, or appeasing the Daily Mail or The Sun. But he will surely want to invest in national infrastructure (especially green energy) and skill training to build sustainable, long term national prosperity.
He must also recognise, in a way that English nationalist Tories cannot, that London must respect and work with the devolved governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh if the union is to survive. (Northern Ireland is more complex, but rejoining the single market and customs union would ease tensions in the six counties as well boosting relations with the Republic.)
A sea change in politics
“You know there are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea-change…”
So said prime minister James Callaghan to his close aide Bernard Donoughue on the eve of the 1979 election that began 18 years of Conservative rule. I suspect we are experiencing a similar sea-change now. Labour has its greatest opportunity since 1997, if not 1945. The serious-minded Keir Starmer might just be the perfect man to make the most of it.