Labour’s King in the North is biggest threat to Westminster’s Jester

by Simon Heffer

There is a remarkable assumption among most politicians – even those not members of the Conservative party – that the present government will win a second term at the next general election. Several factors encourage this belief. The Tories have a working majority of 83, so an outright victory by any other party requires a slaughter of Conservative MPs, which for the moment seems unlikely. Labour currently has 199 seats and needs 326 to secure a Commons majority.

Even if the Conservatives lost more than 42 seats – and therefore their working majority – and Labour won all of them, the Labour party would still be nowhere near to forming a government, even with the help of the likely third largest party in the Commons, the SNP. And if Labour did win so many Conservative seats that it could make some sort of pact to govern with the SNP, what price would the Nationalists seek? No doubt the promise of a referendum on independence which, if they won, would remove the possibility of Labour having Scottish seats in a Westminster parliament, reducing further their chances of ever governing in England and Wales again. Moreover, the moment the SNP left Westminster having secured independence, Labour would be unable to govern; the Tories would probably have a majority in the scaled-down House of Commons.

Boundary changes before the next election seem increasingly unlikely – the Boundaries Commission for England, which is increasing the number of seats in the country and mainly in existing Tory heartlands, is not due to report until the summer of 2023. However, other factors seem to rule out a Labour government in the next parliament. One measure likely to be on the statute book before then is the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which would allow the prime minister to call a general election at a time advantageous for the Tory party and as disadvantageous as possible for Labour. Also, with mounting rumours of internal strife in the SNP, there is growing belief that Nicola Sturgeon will not be able to secure a second independence referendum and would be far from certain to win it if she did. Coupled with the increasingly apparent failings of the Scottish government on key matters such as education, public health and law and order, the SNP may be a declining force at Westminster come the next election.

For the two years of Johnson’s prime ministership, his opponents, and many pundits, have asked why is he so popular given his lack of truthfulness and mounting record of failure?

But the main drag on Labour is the ineffectuality of its leader, Sir Keir Starmer. Despite more than a year in office he has failed to unite his party, which continues to feature a substantial and troublesome minority devoted to the hard-left policies that caused the party to be thrashed in 2019. Perhaps worse than that, he has failed to connect with the public. And perhaps worse still, he has repeatedly failed to score in the goal so often left open by the incompetence and dishonesty of Boris Johnson and the failings of several of his colleagues.

Most other leaders of the opposition of recent times would have reduced to rubble any prime minister having Johnson’s non-relationship with the truth, his record of broken promises and his absence of strategy. Johnson has presided over some egregious horrors in recent weeks: notably his support of Matt Hancock after the exposure of his irregular private life; his humiliation when Hancock was forced to resign; his entirely dishonest subsequent claim that he had sacked his disgraced health minister; his initial refusal to isolate when “pinged” by his own NHS app; and his inability to take important decisions when the country threatened to grind to a halt after a couple of million other people were told to isolate. This sequence of errors caused the government’s lead in the opinion polls to fall from thirteen to four per cent in the second part of July. But even that would not be sufficient to put Labour in power, and it is the old story of an opposition flourishing because of the failures of the government and not because of its own compelling policies.

Various other forces are coming into play, however, if not for the rise of the Labour party, then for the further decline of the Tories. For the two years of Johnson’s prime ministership, his opponents, and many pundits, have asked why is he so popular given his lack of truthfulness and mounting record of failure? While almost everyone who has worked closely with him finds his slipperiness, his lack of professionalism and his intense selfishness highly objectionable, the wider public is shielded from such traits.

To many, he has long remained the genial comedian they recall from his lightweight newspaper columns and his television appearances. When they read about his private life, or his money troubles, they derive a kind of vicarious pleasure from them, not least because in these ways too he continues to amuse and entertain. Yet perceptions have shifted, first because of his failure to understand the public’s anger at the Hancock episode, and then for failing to see how bad it looked when he thought he could avoid self-isolation when “pinged”. In both cases, the public detected a contempt for them and how they were being asked to live their lives, and a determination by Johnson to more or less do as he pleased. Given the personal sacrifices many Britons have been ordered to make over the last eighteen months or so, this exposure of his less attractive side has gone down pretty badly.

Then there is the question of dealing with the other consequences of the pandemic, especially the economic ones. It is likely that every adult will be forced to endure some reduction in disposable income to pay for the handling of the crisis. Although the implementation of a new public health programme of vaccinations, the procurement of protective equipment for key workers and the introduction of a taxpayer-funded furlough scheme had widespread support, paying for them may be a less consensual matter. Key sectors in the economy, particularly the hospitality and entertainment industries, retailing and commercial property, have taken hits from which many might never recover. And when the last remnants of the furlough scheme come to an end there is likely to be a rise in unemployment that might affect the government in its marginal constituencies.

Meanwhile, the hundreds of billions pumped into the economy are forecast to bring about inflation, which in turn could see interest rates moving up for the first time in nearly a decade and a half. Many City economists think inflation could briefly reach three or four per cent. For the better off, a rise in interest rates will impact those without fixed-rate mortgages, and families who have over-borrowed because of years of low rates could find themselves in real difficulty. For the worse off – a high proportion of whom are likely to live in the so-called “red wall” marginals the Conservatives won from Labour in 2019 – there is shortly to be a 20 per cent cut in Universal Credit, which was temporarily increased during the pandemic to help poorer families.

The six million people who have claimed it this summer is double the number before Covid. If it is removed just as prices start to climb, there could be a considerable movement of disillusioned ex-Labour voters back to their party from the ranks of abstainers, or even from the Tories, undoing much of the psephological change the Conservatives thought they had inspired and had hoped to make permanent. On top of all this Downing Street is in chaos, with Dan Rosenfield, the chief of staff, reported to be in despair, and a widespread assumption that the prime minister’s wife, Carrie Symonds, is in charge of dispositions and Johnson reluctant to contradict her.

Burnham is unquestionably charismatic, something not even Starmer’s best friend could accuse him of, and as a result is highly regarded far outside Manchester and increasingly regarded as a spokesman and tribune for the whole north of England

But there is one overriding factor that could propel the Tories into a minority, and thereby greatly shorten the duration of the next parliament and give Labour an early attempt to regain power. As one minister put it to me recently, “Johnson is safe so long as Starmer is there. If Starmer goes, everything changes.” My interlocutor’s assumption was that if Starmer was forced out of office – and to be fair to him, he shows no sign of going without putting up a hell of a fight – the favourite to replace him would be Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Manchester, regarded as one of the few unmitigated successes of the present Labour party. Burnham is not, of course, in the House of Commons, but that is considered a technicality: it is believed that an MP in the Manchester area has been approached by Burnham’s supporters and is prepared to stand down to create a by-election to allow him to re-enter the Commons.

Burnham has been a high profile mayor. His confrontations with the government during the pandemic had mixed results – though he is credited with securing more public money for his region during the pandemic – he is popular and considered highly competent. He is unquestionably charismatic, something not even Starmer’s best friend could accuse him of, and as a result is highly regarded far outside Manchester and increasingly regarded as a spokesman and tribune for the whole north of England.

But Burnham’s greatest asset is that he learned how to be a politician in the era of his party’s greatest success, becoming a special adviser to Tessa Jowell in 1994, the year Tony Blair became the Labour leader. He ended up serving as a cabinet minister under Gordon Brown, a shadow minister under Ed Miliband, and then bailed out of the Corbyn parliamentary party to run his own show in Manchester and, it was widely thought, to avoid contamination. Growing up in the school of Blair and Mandelson, but also witnessing the failures of action and judgment that brought the New Labour project to an end, he knows how to pursue success and is under no illusions about how right Enoch Powell was to observe that all political careers end in failure. Having experienced both triumph and disaster, he is perfectly equipped for all Westminster could throw at him.

Were Burnham, or someone of similar calibre, to take over the Labour party, it would be the beginning of the end for Johnson. Burnham’s eye for detail, his professionalism and seriousness would quickly expose Johnson’s lack of all three qualities, both in the Commons and in the media. The Tory party would then either panic and get rid of Johnson and replace him with someone Burnham would find it harder to counter, or it would stick with him and risk losing its majority. In that sense, the future of the Conservative government, and the apparent certainty of its winning the next election, is very much in the hands of the Labour party. All that remains to be seen is whether they are serious enough about regaining power to act with the ruthlessness required to do so.

Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for The Telgraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham

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