If Conservative MPs should be feeling queasy about standing by Boris Johnson over his egregious lockdown breaches, Labour MPs would do well to reflect on what his survival says about them. For the prime minister’s resilience tells us three things about Tory thinking. It says the party is unsure who should replace him and feels no urgency about acting. But above all it shows they do not yet fear Labour.
This may seem counterintuitive. Labour has had a run of strong poll leads and its leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has been a model of dignified prosecutorial rage in the face of Johnson’s evasions.
And yet Tories are sustained in their inaction by the belief that Labour does not yet look like an alternative government. They believe its poll leads are soft, political preferences expressed in a vacuum. The revolt against Johnson may yet come. But if Tories were convinced of Labour’s potency they would not wait long to see if the situation could be recovered — whatever the uncertainties over the succession.
There are grounds for this sangfroid. Labour needs a huge swing to win and only twice in the past 50 years has a party secured an outright victory from opposition. It is also desperately short of funds and laying off staff.
More important is one simple point. Elections are won by parties with a compelling and optimistic, forward-looking story about themselves and how they will change the country. The Tories still have one; Labour does not. Starmer tells colleagues that they must assume the election is next year. Yet even close allies say there are a lot of blanks to fill in: “I cannot see our driving force,” says one.
Starmer has made big strides, distancing Labour from the toxic legacy of Jeremy Corbyn. New frontbenchers like Rachel Reeves, shadow chancellor and Wes Streeting, shadow health secretary, are winning admirers. But looking like a credible opposition is not enough. Labour’s three decisive election victories, under Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, were founded on a winning vision of how an active government would rise to the challenges of the future.
At the moment, Labour’s offer appears to be that it will be a better Boris Johnson. As defeated parties must, it has accepted parts of the Johnson settlement and been clear that Brexit will not be reversed. Its argument instead is that an incompetent, dishonest government is incapable of delivering its pledges so the levelling-up, net zero and skills agendas are just hollow goals. With a doctrinaire Brexit and no viable growth strategy, Tories must raise taxes to meet spending commitments.
The appeal is clear but it relies on voters agreeing that the government has failed and that Brexit can be better delivered by its opponents. It also leaves the Tories in control of the electoral narrative. Wednesday’s levelling up white paper may be shorn of extra funds but it shows both intent and that the debate is being set by the government. It offers voters an optimistic vision, and via its 2030 targets, an invitation to keep faith with the journey.
Labour is beginning to shape an agenda. Reeves is rebuilding the reputation for financial competence and a case for fairer taxation, notably through taxing all forms of income equally. Business rates reform is proposed, so the burden is shared more equally by online businesses. On workers rights, Labour is committed to tackling fire and rehire practices and the worst abuses of gig economy jobs and to a broader skills strategy. It is outpromising the government on green investment.
On Brexit, there are promises to ease market frictions, seek mutual recognition of professional qualifications, more access for financial services and for the creative arts. These are all good aims, though it is less clear what Labour would trade to get sectoral deals that were denied to Johnson.
But what is missing is the overarching change narrative that Johnson offered — a story that excites voters and puts Labour in control of the agenda. The danger is that Labour is building a strategy around policies, rather than policies from the strategy. What is it offering on the NHS, given that even more funding is out. What is the compelling story on schools or crime? What is Labour saying on the technological and AI challenge or doing to deliver better health outcomes or education? This means working with the private sector. In Streeting at health and Bridget Phillipson at education, Starmer has people ready to drive policy forward, but allies say they are unsure where he wants them to go.
If Starmer truly believes the next election could be 16 months away he is leaving it late to develop his message. One ally notes that “the default in this country is to elect Tory governments. We win when we excite people with a better, more optimistic future.”
Labour’s story must be about more than competence and integrity, appealing as that seems. It must be built around the theme that Britain can be better, richer and fairer and a leadership equipped to face the huge challenges ahead. It needs to own Britain’s modernisation agenda on climate change, public services and so on. Starmer has made Labour competitive, but if all that is needed is a “better Boris”, the Tories have time to find their own alternative.
If he wants to topple the prime minister, Starmer’s best route is to craft a story Tories fear voters may buy. If Johnson survives to fight the next election it will be a damning statement on Conservative morality. But it may also say a lot about how far Labour remains off the pace.