The Daily Telegraph is considered the voice of the Conservative grassroots - so today’s splash will have driven a sliver of ice into minister’ veins. Here is the new leader of the opposition, a knight of the realm no less, urging the government to get a grip of the Covid-19 outbreak in care homes. ‘We owe so much to the generation of VE Day,’ he says. ‘We must do everything we can to care for and support them through the current crisis.’ On the day we remember the end of hostilities in Europe, Sir Keir Starmer has planted his tanks boldly on the Tories’ lawn.
We should be wary of reading too much into one newspaper front page but it is nonetheless a perfect piece of politics from the Labour leader, perfect not least because it doesn’t look political at all. Sir Keir just cares about our greatest generation, unlike (the implication being) those feckless incompetents in Downing Street who didn’t provide enough testing or PPE and are the reason so many elderly are dying without their families by their side.
Sir Keir has had a good plague. He has cloaked his broadsides in the language of constructive criticism and so the country’s introduction to him has been as a sensibly-suited solicitor just saying what everyone else is thinking. He is not quite there yet but he is on his way to establishing himself as the voice of common sense on coronavirus. The contrast with his predecessor could not be more vivid.
The threat Sir Keir poses to the Tory party is not just as a reasonable-sounding rent-a-quote. The danger for ministers is that the Labour leader succeeds in framing the failings in the government’s response to Covid-19 as outgrowths of austerity or the Conservative worldview — and offers a convincing alternative for the future. He can be seen attempting this in this morning’s Telegraph op-ed.
“[W]e must go forward with the determination to rebuild a better society. That means repaying the debt we owe to our key workers, who are putting their lives on the line to keep us safe. It means having the courage to tackle the injustices that have existed in our society for too long. And it means writing a new settlement for social care, with dignity and respect at its heart. The lesson of VE Day is that despite the scale of the challenge, a better future is possible. A new society can be built.
No one yet knows what long-term impact the pandemic will have on social and economic attitudes. Current polling still puts the Tories far ahead of Labour but that is to be expected in the middle of a crisis and so soon after a bumper Conservative election victory (can you believe that was only five months ago?). The bind the Tories face is that, if their handling of coronavirus is deemed a success, it will have made the case for a more interventionist state and, if it is deemed a failure, it will be because the government wasn’t interventionist enough. Either way, politics has shifted onto traditionally Labour territory.
Nothing is set in stone just because Sir Keir Starmer got one decent front page out of a right-wing newspaper. His efforts to challenge his party’s institutional antisemitism have been mixed thus far and his weakness in confronting the far-left risks storing up trouble for the future. Ministers are also not helpless. They have the power to improve the current response to the virus and to reshape their party for a post-Covid politics in which the public expects a more active government. But they should not be complacent. Labour might finally have a leader capable of capturing the mood of the nation.