A sign that the political landscape is changing in favour of the Conservatives can be found in a YouGov poll this week stating that the Tories have a 13-point lead over Labour. This comes after a recent uptick in support for the Conservatives that has been put down to a vaccine boost.
There now also appears to be a Budget boost – with the latest poll finding that Sunak’s 2021 Budget is seen as the fairest in 12 years, with 55 per cent saying it was fair. However, any celebrations in government have been dampened slightly by the row over its plan to give health workers a 1 per cent pay rise – rather than the 12.5 per cent the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) were calling for.
The turn in fortunes for the Tories has refocused attention on Keir Starmer's leadership of the Labour party. The Labour leader has come under fire in the past month from left wing media and sections of his own party for failing to make a mark. Recent polling is only serving to encourage Starmer's critics who are calling for the Labour leadership to adopt a more aggressive approach to holding the government to account.
Corbyn supporters have been particularly vocal in calling the dip in Labour support a cause of concern. There are signs that Starmer is listening to their concerns – and adopting a tougher tone on some issues. For example, in response to the nurse pay row, he has asked how No. 10 approved a £40,000 per year pay rise for Dominic Cummings but £3.50 per week for NHS nurses.
However, the overall view among Team Starmer is that this is a long-term project and that politics during a pandemic is different to normal politics. The public wants constructive opposition – because if the government fails in its handling of the pandemic, it would cost lives and livelihoods.
When Rachel Reeves – the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – appeared on The Spectator's Women with Balls podcast this week, she said a pandemic meant 'we're in an odd position of being an opposition party that wants the government to succeed because failure to tackle coronavirus and protect us is disastrous for all of us and everything we care about':
“'So the form of opposition has been very different from the form of opposition you would want or expect or need in the other nine or so years I've been in parliament – and that probably does mean you're that not landing as many punches, but I don't think that's what people want from the Labour party now.I also think that a series of small interventions on an assortment of topics isn't what is needed. You know Labour have now lost four elections in a row and we've just gone through a pandemic and a 120,000 people and counting have now died. Labour can't just think that making some speeches and making some policy announcements, I just don't think that's what's going to win us the election in 2024, there are some deeper factors at play for why Labour keeps losing. Some deeper factors at play for why in the 120 years of Labour's existence, we've only had three leaders who have won us majority governments.'
But even by this rationale, Starmer will soon find himself under pressure to point to results. The pandemic is easing – the vaccination programme is going ahead at full steam and the government aims to end restrictions by the summer. If things continue to improve, the Labour leadership will not be able to point to a pandemic as a reason for not cutting through or landing blows. A return to 'normal politics' will mean Starmer's leadership can finally be judged for what it is.