It’s happening again. Despite having lost four general elections in a row, supporters of the Labour party have already convinced themselves that Boris Johnson is doomed and they are on course for victory next time.
Their reasoning was expertly set out by Andrew Rawnsley, still the doyen of left-of-centre commentators, in his Observer column on Sunday: Jeremy Corbyn was a gift to the Tories, but now Labour has the much more ‘capable and substantial’ Keir Starmer at the helm and the government doesn’t know how to deal with him; Boris Johnson’s basic lack of competence has been shown up by coronavirus; people are warming to the technocratic Starmer and while he is fully in charge of his party ‘a growing number of Tory MPs’ believe they will need a different leader by the next election.
I recently had a similar argument relayed to me by a long-time Labour activist: ‘You won’t like this, but Boris has blown it. He’s a buffoon and everyone can now see that. Keir Starmer is showing him up every week.’
Now this analysis is not 100 per cent fictional. Labour is doing a bit better (low bar), the PM has not always hit the right notes during the pandemic and a few Tory MPs have indeed started up again on their favourite parlour game of ‘who’s next?’
But fancy having seen Labour bomb so often and yet being so convinced that next time round is bound to go swimmingly well for your party. It’s akin to being an England football fan at the turn of the century and greeting the next penalty shoot-out with a cocky swagger and a ‘that’ll be us going through then’ grin.
Often these predictions make a ritual nod to those on the left of the party, asking them to not take impending triumph as a given. But why would anyone need to be told that? This is a party which has lost four times in a row and which will go into the next contest with around 160 fewer MPs than its rival, without any prospect of regaining its traditional Scottish seat bank and with constituency boundaries having been redrawn to its disadvantage.
Meanwhile new polling analysis shows that Boris Johnson is chalking up his highest satisfaction ratings in the very ‘red wall’ seats that he won from Labour in December which they need to win back.
That is probably in large part because Labour now counts within its parliamentary ranks so many woke extremists who give off a political odour repellent to provincial England: the knee-benders, statue-topplers and no-platformers who so frenetically hammer nails into the coffin of a once formidable political brand.
No wonder that despite the horrendous political conditions 2020 has brought for governing parties, the Tories remain on average eight points ahead of Labour in nationwide polls, retaining a decisive lead on economic competence. There are one-legged men out there limbering up for butt-kicking contests who have sounder grounds for optimism than Labour.
And all this guff about Boris Johnson being holed below the waterline? Haven’t we heard that all before too? The chattering classes have always seen his premiership as an aberration – something weird thrown up by the unique circumstances of the Brexit crisis.
Indeed, back in the autumn several left-wing commentators raised the prospect of him being the shortest-serving PM in history. Yet in December, Johnson brought home a parliamentary majority of 80. That’s an era-defining result rendering him far more likely to be a ten year premier like Thatcher or Blair, than a six-year one like Major or Cameron.
Only once in my adult life has Labour become the anti-complacency machine it needs to be. From 1994 to 1997, Tony Blair behaved as if his party was on the brink of another defeat rather than cantering to inevitable victory.
Despite being 15 points ahead in the polls and despite Major and the Tories being broken after Black Wednesday, still Blair took every conceivable step – no matter how internally unpalatable – to broaden the party’s support. He ditched Clause Four, he made friends with Rupert Murdoch and the Rothermeres, he ruled out joining the euro without first holding a permissive referendum, and he promised that tight Tory spending plans would be adhered to for two years and that the main tax rates would not rise.
Keir Starmer is not taking comparable steps despite being in a much weaker position than Blair was on assuming the party leadership. He more resembles the soft-left Neil Kinnock of the mid-1980s, pocketing the easy wins that come simply from not being his shambolic hard-left predecessor and then taking whatever incremental steps towards electability he thinks his party’s mainstream will tolerate.
It’s not good enough. We’re living through yet another standard sequel in the ‘British Politics’ film franchise. We’ve reached the point in the plot when sympathetic sages start saying that Soft Lad – Kinnock/Miliband/Starmer – is on track and the Tories are ebbing away. But we already know how the movie ends.