This week the pollsters over at YouGov reported a 28 point lead for Labour, with the party reaching the deeply symbolic 50% mark with the public. Whether you are a Sir Keir enthusiast or a Starmer sceptic, that is quite the achievement. But it also begs some questions - questions that he and his party will come under increasing pressure to identify some answers to.
The most obvious question is how far and how fast that extraordinary gap is going to close. The Labour Party will not receive the votes of half the population at the next election. It is unlikely that the Tories will go as low as the early twenties. So where does this bottom out? Unnervingly for Labour, the answer to that question depends (amongst other things, of course) on the decisions of a third party very much outwith their control.
Part of the problem for Rishi Sunak is that the Reform Party is on 7% in that same poll (they are on more in others). Reform, led by Richard Tice, was begotten by the Brexit Party which was begotten by UKIP which was begotten by the Referendum Party. It is eating up a share of the vote, at present, that would otherwise largely drift back to the Conservative fold. What they decide to do when the time comes will matter to whether or not the Tories have any real route to holding on. Back in 2019, of course, the Reform Party’s ancestors stepped aside in a glut of seats in order to smooth Boris’ path to a landslide.
Will Reform perform a similar act of generosity at the next election? Probably not - particularly not if Rishi (who they dislike and deride as a ‘globalist’ and ‘Theresa May Mark II’) remains the Conservative candidate for PM. Which is why some Tory MPs, staring down the barrel of Starmer’s gun, are musing on whether a more Reform-friendly (Farage-friendly) leader might not be the smart move required to give them a fighting chance. Which, in turn, is why Boris Johnson is spending his downtime from addressing conferences of Alabama insurance salesmen and making offers on £4 million Cotswold castles banging a big drum marked ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’. Sunak is boxed in on Brexit - unable to get his deal across the line, unwilling to further explode our trading relationship with Europe by following the Johnson strategy of simply legislating away the treaty that we signed just 3 years ago.
Without progress on Northern Ireland the country is stuck. Older readers of these notes will recall a time when tomatoes in February were an unheard-of novelty in this green and pleasant land. It was access via the single market to the produce of hotter countries that revolutionised the British diet.
There was a reason that, prior to the internationalisation of the food supply chain, British people really did mostly eat gammon and chips, bacon and eggs, and - yes - mashed swede or turnip for their supper. And there is a reason that, now, when problems occur in that global supply chain we are the first to suffer and we suffer for longer. Part of that reason is Brexit. Not all of it. But part of it. And it says something about the scarring effect of the last 5 years on our politics that no-one (short of Ed Davey, of course) wants to mention that. But, at heart, that is why Sunak needs a deal. And it is also why he can’t betray the cause by securing one. Empty shelves to the left of him, Reform to the right. Stuck in the middle with a pile of root vegetables and a pair of £500 Prada loafers.
One other question that Labour’s lead begs is what they will do if they win as big as all that. Starmer has been slow to answer this question but he began to articulate his direction of travel this week - announcing his ‘5 national missions’. Critics were quick (and not wholly unreasonable) to point to the vagueness of these. Supporters and advisers insist that the broadness is intentional - deployed to ensure that Starmer gets many more bites of the cherry as he begins to add flesh to these bones. But one issue Sir Keir does need to address more urgently for the sake of party unity is that gap between these ‘missions’ and the ‘10 pledges’ upon which his leadership was won. All politicians have to be able to jettison a promise that is no longer either expedient or practical, but one has to do this with a level of grace and elegance that was lacking in this week’s tough media-round for the Prime Ministerial hopeful.
We close this week’s missive with a quote from little-known country musician Taylor Swift - from the song for which this note is named - which feels apt for the situation in which Sir Keir finds himself as politics turns in his favour so dramatically.
“Can I ask you a question?
Did you ever have someone kiss you in a crowded room
And every single one of your friends was making fun of you
But fifteen seconds later they were clapping too?
Then what would you do?”