Part of the soap opera appeal of politics comes from the idea that it is a competitive sport based on fine margins – with a result that will be determined by the relative performances of the teams and their captains.
Under the British first-past-the-post system two major parties slug it out in an epic tussle across hundreds of seats and then one of them wins. Sometimes things are so closely fought that neither party has an outright majority, in which case one or more of the minor parties gets to choose which should be propped up.
From this point of view, every policy shift or zinger soundbite thrown by Boris Johnson or Keir Starmer changes the odds as to which of them will occupy 10 Downing Street after the next election. Neck and neck in the polls, our two principals fight each other like adversaries on a rope bridge traversing rapids.
But what if this isn’t right? What if we are merely talking it up to kid ourselves that the conduct of politics is more compelling and unpredictable than is actually the case?
Just after the 1997 general election, I recall having lunch with a Tory grandee who had been prominent in John Major’s Cabinet. What, I wondered, could the Conservatives do to get back in the game after their landslide defeat? My companion told me it wasn’t possible. The poisonous legacies of Black Wednesday and back-to-basics sleaze combined with the brilliance of the Blair propaganda machine added up to an impossible set of circumstances.
‘Nobody wants to hear from us at the moment. We just have to wait until the public mood changes,’ he said.
But would it be possible for the electorate’s desire to punish the Tories and disinclination to vote for them last all the way to the next election and beyond, I asked. Yes, he replied. This was quite possible. He was right. It did.
So damaged was the Tory brand that the political weather did not even begin to change until after EU enlargement in 2004 led to an unprecedented wave of immigration. And even then, Michael Howard was only able to secure a marginal uplift at the 2005 election.
Were I dining with a senior member of Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet today – an admittedly unlikely prospect, but please indulge me – I would be tempted to make a similar point. Mightn’t the reputational damage sustained by Labour across multiple fronts, but most notably over its attempt to stop the 2016 referendum verdict from being implemented, be so severe that 2024 and even 2028 are already lost causes?
Peter Mandelson recently admitted that the pro-EU camp would pay a ‘price’ for ‘trying, in the years following 2016, to reverse the referendum decision rather than achieve the least damaging form of Brexit’. The price he had in mind was ‘a very hard Brexit’.
But there is every chance it will also include the Labour Party being blanked for many years ahead by millions of people who at one time considered themselves its stalwart supporters and who switched to the Conservatives in 2019 expressly to ‘get Brexit done’.
If a party thinks so little of you that it is prepared to cancel your vote despite having previously promised to honour it, that is liable to be seen as a disabling act of hostility. If it then makes the figure who masterminded this infamous manoeuvre its new leader, what grounds really are there to think it could possibly be back in the game?
Had they backed Theresa May’s fake Brexit, Labour could have kept the UK tied to the EU’s customs and regulatory systems and sat back to watch the Tories take an absolute beasting from Nigel Farage and their own let-down Leave voters.
By seeking to torpedo Brexit altogether, Starmer’s team bet the ranch on an outcome that didn’t happen. And now they have not only lost the prospect of ‘soft’ Brexit, but also shown that they hold much of their traditional working class support base in contempt.
That feeling is, I suggest, now a mutual one. Whatever mid-term polling might imply about the Red Wall potentially returning to Labour, the truth is that with no election on the horizon the polls mean little.
When blue collar Britain starts focusing on the choice facing it in mid-2024 – and that moment won’t come until 2024 has itself dawned – Boris Johnson will have to have done some truly horrendous things to face remotely the same level of ire that Starmer will.
The level of disrespect Labour showed was too high. By trying to call off Brexit – responding to an instruction from the British people by simply defying it and telling them to change their ways – what were they thinking?
We aren’t watching two evenly-matched heroes slug it out on a slippery rope bridge at all. We are just suspending our disbelief so that we can better enjoy the only panto permitted to take place this winter. Spoiler alert: the chapter ends with Starmer getting dumped in the river.
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