The overwhelming feeling amongst senior Labour strategists and campaigners this morning is neither elation nor excitement. It is relief. The local election results so far – and the best for Labour are likely yet to come - demonstrate that the party is genuinely on track to form the next Government. Why does that solicit a ‘phew’ rather than a ‘yay’?
Partly, it is born of experience. Over the last decade the party and its supporters have been occasionally tempted to hope only to have all optimism dashed upon the rocks of the ballot box. For seasoned staffers and frontbenchers, that recent history has driven a suspicion that despite their consistency, the polls showing Labour leads over the last year were - somehow - a mirage.
Partly, too, it is born of the dynamics in the country. Yes, Labour leads the Tories in the polls and yes, Starmer and Reeves are building their credibility. But there is no denying that a significant chunk of Labour’s advantage at the moment comes from the repellent effect that Liz Truss had on the electorate. The further away from her premiership we get, so the party worries, the more voters might begin to (begrudgingly) drift back into the Tory fold.
Can Rishi tempt them back? Maybe. To his credit he has done a reasonable job of projecting the differences between his style and that of his ill-fated predecessors. And there is sense that many are willing to ‘give him a chance’. But as last night’s results demonstrate, he has a very steep mountain to climb if he is to translate general good-will into trust (let alone votes) when it comes to the crunch.
Senior Labour figures also question the prevailing narrative that, in a campaign, Sunak’s personality will woo the electorate. They feel confident that Sunak’s ever so slightly patronising, often quite smug persona will prove a turn-off when it makes contact with exhausted, broke voters. They may be right.
The Labour Party did what it needed to do on Thursday. More results to come, of course, but those we have paint a convincing picture of Labour being en route to Number 10. Nothing in politics is certain but Starmer and his allies finally have solid, voter-endorsed proof that their plan is paying off. Given what is at stake you can forgive him and his inner-circle a collective ‘phew’ this morning.