Johnson won a major majority over a month ago. He has now passed his Brexit Bill and secured Britain’s passage out of the EU in a week’s time. That’s an achievement, whether one agrees with the outcome or not, but it is not a programme of government. As some of this country’s obsession with Brexit recedes (rightly or wrongly as we enter time-limited negotiations on trade) other issues and challenges will rear their heads. The knotty problem of social care, to which the PM is committed to finding a solution; HS2, about which the Tory benches are already falling out; how to actually ‘level up’ the economies in the North and the Midlands whose voters gave him that famous majority in the first place.
The Government claims that all will be revealed once Brexit is done. Johnson has held off reshuffling his Cabinet in any significant or unforced way until that moment comes. Similarly, structural changes to government departments are happening in the background in preparation for the big reveal. Expect him to move swiftly in February – taking the opportunity to signal a ‘reset’ in UK politics to match Johnson’s priorities beyond leaving the EU. It seems that the Prime Minister is sincerely committed to junking whatever free market orthodoxies might prevent his party holding on in their new seats. He rescued FlyBe because it is crucial to regional connectivity, in spite of misgivings from the economic right of his party. His Transport Secretary is aggressively sticking the boot in to rail franchisees who have gotten away with mistreating provincial customers. Silly but symbolic notions – like, ‘let’s move the House of Lords to York’ – are floated in the press.
But in that final example lies the problem for Boris and for his Napoleonic ambition to recast the British economy in his own image. Moving the Lords to York won’t happen and even if it did it would be unlikely to do much to transform the lives of voters in Blyth Valley or West Brom. It is the sort of idea for northern rejuvenation that might seem clever and interesting at a dinner party in north London but which is likely to be met with bemusement by the people it is aiming to help. What Johnson needs if he is really going to ‘level up’ these left behind areas is a shopping list of practical projects that range in price tag between a couple and a couple of hundred million. Stuff that can be completed a lot quicker than HS2 and which answers the actual, practical problems of life outside the metropolises. Where does he get that list? Well not from the traditional policy development engine of either his party or the central government. Neither has such a thing. He is going to need to find a way to go out and ask people what they want and to engage with the niches of academia and local government that know what needs building and where. And quickly, too. Because if Boris Johnson gets to 2024 with only Brexit and a few gimmicks to his name he might find that his new voters have decided to go home to Labour.
In part, of course, the fate of the Government rests on what Labour decides to do next. And what Labour decides to do next ought – if they were thinking clearly – be based on an analysis of the specific strengths and weaknesses of this Government.
Truth be told, though, the Labour Party is punch drunk. One of the cruel realities of British politics is that party leadership elections are often conducted immediately after a defeat. No sooner have activists been trotting out slogans in the election than they now have to be honest about why the party lost. This is psychologically beyond a fair percentage of true believers of whatever stripe and under whatever regime they came to see the light. There are plenty of Blair true believers who will still hear no wrong of their hero, but they are currently dwarfed by the approximately 30% of Labour activists who refuse to question the main tenets of Corbynism. There is another, softer Left – making up about 50% – who were happy to be led by Corbyn but who feel there were excesses in both policy and tone under Corbyn and see the need for change. The rest are the old rump right wing for whom all elements of Corbynism have to be both rejected and ruthlessly ejected from the party. This is the broad brush picture of the electorate that will select the new Leader of the Opposition and potential future Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
There is no candidate who has grabbed the imagination of the public and all have obvious flaws. However, democracy is about choosing the least worst option so the party is currently undergoing a series of hustings and the candidates are conducting interviews to try and put together a winning coalition in the above electorate. Two candidates have already pulled out, Clive Lewis and Jess Phillips, both of whom were defeated early by the complex new rules surrounding nominations. Emily Thornberry may be the next to go – unless she can persuade thirty or so local Labour parties to nominate her. Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer are both on the ballot with Rebecca Long Bailey expected to join them. For the purpose of understanding and explaining the likely dynamics of the race, let’s assume that they and only they make it through.
Of the three, Starmer has so far had the smoothest campaign and is seen as the front runner by the media. This status has been bolstered by YouGov polling but that must be used with caution. His campaign is also well-funded, being backed by Unison and some large donors. He is appealing to the pragmatic elements across the party, arguing that he is a potential PM, looks the part, and can dismantle Boris at the despatch box. His detractors say he has no personality and that he will fail to register with voters – not as weird as Ed Miliband but similar. Starmer also has a London Trotskyite past which alarms some on the Right and pushes them towards Nandy.
Long Bailey’s campaign was riven by factional fighting even before it got going and has lurched along without any strategic direction for a week or two – until John McDonnell’s hands were prised off the steering wheel by Momentum. However, the operations are now getting organised and her financial backers in Momentum have deep pockets. There is sign of some panic amidst her team as she has switched her messaging. She has moved from a broad appeal citing ‘progressive patriotism’, which alarmed the Hard Left, to trying to enthuse her base with classic Hard Left red meat about mandatory reselection of MPs. She is now the full-blooded Corbyn continuity candidate and standard bearer for the Hard Left, even though she herself thought that she couldn’t win from that spot at the start.
Nandy began from a small base and a slow start but is picking up momentum. The backing of the GMB and Jess Phillips, when she pulled out, are booth boosts. Her problem is the lack of recognition to the average activist. She benefits from the important group of Labour women who will only vote for a woman Leader but want a change from Corbynism. This was one of the key reasons cited by Jess Phillips why she was supporting Nandy over Starmer.
Assuming no candidate wins on the first ballot, that is achieves over 50% of the votes cast, then one candidate will be eliminated and their second preferences will be counted. Obviously a candidate’s capacity to have a broader appeal will be crucial at this juncture. The current working assumption of all 3 campaigns is that the final round will be Starmer v Long Bailey or Starmer v Nandy. So everything will depend on which woman is eliminated first. The feeling is that if Nandy is in third spot and is eliminated her vote may well split 3:1 for Starmer, and he will win. But that if Long Bailey is eliminated her vote could split 3:1 for Nandy and she might pull through. Long Bailey will have to do significantly better to broaden her appeal if she is to win by gaining a big advantage in the first round.
All of which tells us, what? Well that until April Boris Johnson basically has a clear run at governing. That he will reshuffle his cabinet and – if he has any sense – start seeking out those practical projects to improve the lives of the people who lent him their votes in December. Labour will be distracted until then and their new leader will face a Prime Minister determined to lock them out of their former strongholds in the North and the Midlands much as the SNP has locked them out of their old Scottish fortresses. But this Government and this Prime Minister also has a problem. A specific weakness. He has promised people the Earth but he doesn’t yet know how to deliver it. And his party aren’t really that keen to anyway. There is a vulnerability there that a deft and skilful political leader could use to crack open some of Johnson’s perceived invincibility.
Which, if any, of the contenders for Labour’s crown possesses such skills? Time, and hustings, will tell.