Anthony Browne MP is Chair of the 1922 Treasury Committee, a former member of the Treasury Select Committee, and on the advisory board of the Institute of Fiscal Studies.
The pathway to victory for the Conservatives may be narrow, it might be difficult to make it out in the mist, but it definitely exists. A year is an eternity in politics. Accidents happen. The economy picks up, a mood of optimism returns, memories of the Truss trauma fade, the army of “Don’t Knows” comes back to the Tory fold, and the message “don’t let Labour spoil it” starts to cut through. The Labour lead in the polls has been stubborn over the past year, but after the PM’s new green pragmatism and support for drivers, there are signs that it is narrowing.
Labour politicians like reminiscing about 1997, when a tired Conservative Government was swept away by the message of “time for change”. But Conservative politicians like reminiscing about 1992. That election evening I set off from London to Cardiff after the polls closed, with the BBC all but declaring Neil Kinnock the new prime minister. By the time I got to Wales, John Major had snatched a surprise victory.
There is no doubt that winning the UK’s 58th general election will be tough for us – and historic. In the modern era, no political party has ever won five elections in a row (between 1807 and 1830, Tories won six in a row, but party politics was just emerging). The last Conservative government fell at the fifth election.
It is often said that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. That is partially true. The Government clearly needs to deliver on its pledges. We need to stop being apologetic about what we have achieved over the past 13 years and get on the front foot – we have grown the economy quicker and cut greenhouse gas emissions faster than any major European nation.
But to win, oppositions have to be credible, not scare the voters, and be seen as a potential government in waiting. Keir Starmer, like his adviser Tony Blair before him, is walking carefully down the corridor desperately trying not to drop his priceless Ming vase.
There the similarity between Blair and Starmer ends. Blair exploded with charisma, a much-underestimated force in politics (it got Boris all the way to Number 10), but Starmer has as much charm as a 1950s bank manager. Most importantly, Blair got to Number 10 by being himself, but Starmer is trying to get to Number 10 by not being himself.
Blair’s political career was based on promoting his centrist third-way between socialism and capitalism, tempering idealism with pragmatism. I think he actually believed in what he said most of the time. What is right is what works. Sharing the proceeds of growth. Tough on crime and the causes of crime. Many Conservatives thought of him as the best Prime Minister the Conservatives never had: he was reassuring to Mondeo Man and the rest of Middle England. New Labour was almost blue Labour. His centrism had an authenticity that meant that his Clause 4 battle, when he ditched Labour’s historic commitment to nationalising the commanding heights of the economy, had real cut through with the voters: he was a break from Labour’s socialist past.
Blair won the leadership of the Labour Party confronting left wingers, and promising to take the party to the centre ground. In contrast, Starmer won the leadership promising a hard-left agenda. His whole political career has been on the left – until he decided he wanted to win a general election.
He won the Labour leadership promising to nationalise rail, mail, energy and water. All ditched. He promised to scrap the two child benefit cap. Ditched. He promised to stop private health companies offering services in the NHS. Ditched. He promised to increase the income tax for the wealthy, scrap tuition fees and abolish the House of Lords. Ditched. Ditched. Ditched.
Starmer knows that British voters would never elect his authentic self as prime minister. He knows that the centre ground is where elections are won, but he is trying to fake it till he makes it. He and his front bench team are method actors trying to perfect the part of being Blairites. They are going through the Blairite playbook, ditching anything that might scare the voters, and adopting anything that might reassure them. They want to be tough on immigration. They want to bring down taxes. Prawn cocktail offensives in the City. Tick. Tick. Tick.
But unlike Blair, for close observers, it is so obviously inauthentic. The voters can sense it, but as Conservatives we have to keep reminding them: we have to pull apart the image Starmer is trying to construct for himself. We have to lift the curtain to reveal the real Starmer behind.
Starmer tried to create his own Clause 4 moment by ejecting Corbyn from the Labour Party. It was supposed to send to voters a cut-through message that the Labour had changed. But Clause 4 crystalised a mission that Blair had been on: it emphasised a reality. Starmer’s problem is that he was for a long time a leading cheerleader for Corbyn, doing everything he could to get the far left socialist elected as Prime Minister. Not for Starmer a principled stand for the moderate middle: he chose to serve Corbyn on his front bench. Tossing Corbyn under the Number 38 bus is a display of political opportunism not principle, and the voters can feel it.
If Starmer had a guiding set of principles that he both believed in and could get him elected, he could be consistent. But reinventing himself from socialist human rights lawyer to pragmatic centrist has forced him to become Captain Flip Flop. He supported ULEZ, then he didn’t. He didn’t know whether women had penises, then he did. He didn’t know whether he supports striking sector workers or not – and actually, to be fair to him, he still doesn’t.
But you can only fake being a centrist so much. The real Starmer still slips out. While Blair supported aspiration, and was comfortable with people becoming filthy rich, Starmer clearly doesn’t. He can’t help himself pandering to the class war politics of envy. His imposition of VAT on private school fees, the attacks on non-doms, the repeated references to Rishi’s financial affairs reveal Starmer’s true self: he likes to cultivate loathing of the wealthy, and doesn’t understand aspiration. Put simply, his instinct is to punish success rather than celebrate it.
All leading politicians have to cultivate an image, and tack to the political wind occasionally. But there have been few that have put on such an act as Starmer. A willing media, which likes a change in politics, has usually been happy to play along. To win, the Conservatives need to set out a positive agenda for the next term. But they also have to repeatedly remind voters of who Starmer is, and the trick he is trying to pull off. It is not just in our interest, but the country’s: it would be a travesty for Britain if this faker makes it.