Labour leads the Conservatives by 19 points in Politico’s poll of polls. The latter are in their fourth term of elected office. A general election is expected within the year.
Roll all that together, and you might well believe, were you Sir Keir Starmer, that your power is at its peak – at least, in terms of control of your own party.
Whether the Labour leader thinks so or not, he clearly understands that the revolt from within his own party over Israel and Gaza is a test case for his leadership.
Does he stand with the Biden administration, Rishi Sunak, Germany, Austria and, ultimately, Israel. Or with Spain, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, China, Russia – and much of his own party?
Sir Keir’s decision is to plump for the former (at least for the time being). His speech this week on the current crisis in the Middle East confirmed it. This will be for three main reasons.
First, he will be sensitive to the damage that anti-semitism did to Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. Obviously, to criticise Israel is not in itself anti-semitic, but Sir Keir will be alert to the overlap.
Second, he will be deeply shocked by the pogroms in Israel on October 7, and firmly believe that Israel has the right to defend itself from terrorism.
Third, there’s the test case factor. The Labour leader knows that the moment his internal power begins to lessen is the moment that the broadcasters declare that Labour has won the general election (assuming this happens).
From that point, the left will begin to mobilise against an economic policy that, broadly speaking, has made its peace with the capitalist system. Sir Keir and Rachel Reeves will, in such circumstances, need to hold the line.
So his Middle East speech was a dress rehearsal for similar future pitches – largely, I suspect, on economic policy. How has he done this week so far? In one sense, well. In another, unsustainably.
The Labour leader did well in the sense that his speech did what he intended it to do – namely, conciliate his pro-Palestinian critics as much as possible without compromising his support for Israel. And he maintained his opposition to a ceasefire.
And he did unsustainably in that at least 13 members of his frontbench are in open revolt. His response has been to engage with them (or perhaps ignore them) rather than fire them.
In opposition, and at this point in the electoral cycle, and on his current poll ratings, Sir Keir can get away with it. In government, he wouldn’t have a hope of doing so.
For expectations of government are different (as they would be for opposition were his position less strong). The jury is out on whether the Labour leader could master the left in government, over the Middle East and much else, as he is currently doing in opposition.