DAN HODGES: Boris is history and now Sir Keir Starmer has a new problem
As Boris Johnson led a desperate and doomed rearguard action to save his post as Prime Minister, in the middle of last week two political operatives were spotted emerging from a pub in central London.
One was a senior Labor official. The other an ally of a top Conservative leadership hopeful.
A few hours later, the phones of several Westminster reporters started ringing. The caller suggested they should start looking into the financial affairs of another possible leadership candidate, new Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi.
According to a shadow labor minister: “We had the various rival camps sending us all kinds of kompromat on other candidates. Openly, they said we should “add it to our records” on their rivals. They want the Labor Party to release it into the public domain without any of their fingerprints.
Starmer has another problem. He is no longer the future. The mantle of change can now be seized by a new Conservative leader. They, not Sir Keir, were given a clean slate. It’s the Tories – not Labor – who have the chance to run for voters again
The Tory leadership campaign is only 72 hours old, but it is already the dirtiest and most vicious in modern British political history. Stories about the sexual indiscretions of one of the main candidates. Rumors involving the work in the intelligence services of another. Tax dodges. Shady loans. Obscure Offshore Accounts.
A great conservative told me: “Everyone gets a little hysterical. They haven’t slept enough. They’re all trying to carve out a place for themselves – and they’re all rushing in like maniacs.
So true. And they have to stop. This weekend, everyone in the Conservative Party needs to calm down, take a deep breath and take a step back.
No wonder the popular perception in Westminster is that these seven days have been disastrous for the government. A charismatic leader was defenestrated. The polls are plummeting. The Red Wall is in revolt.
All of these things can happen. But that doesn’t change a simple fact. The events of the past seven days could ultimately prove beneficial for the Conservative Party and for the country.
Whatever his strengths, Boris Johnson had gone astray. He hasn’t found a strategy to leave Partygate. He had no clear vision to tackle the cost of living crisis.
And in truth, ever since he won his triumphant majority of 80 seats, he has never been able to provide a coherent answer to the question: “OK, Boris, what do you want to do with it? “
Whatever his strengths, Boris Johnson had gone astray. He hasn’t found a strategy to leave Partygate. He had no clear vision to deal with the cost of living crisis
When I was in Devon for Tiverton’s recent by-election, I discovered no visceral public antipathy towards him. But the old magic was gone. Boris was no longer the emblematic buccaneer of conservatism, but the albatross around his neck.
And now that battered old seabird has been successfully – albeit brutally – removed. Unlike the albatross that currently clings like grim death to the Labor Party.
Sir Keir Starmer spent the end of last week arrogantly celebrating his Beergate acquittal. But many of its deputies were not. “We’re stuck with him now,” a backbench MP told me ruefully when the statement from Durham Constabulary was released.
They are, and that gives the Conservative Party an opening. Starmer’s political game plan was exclusively calibrated to set himself against Johnson. But now he finds his guns pointed at an empty no man’s land.
The reality is that Johnson was ousted despite, not because of, Starmer’s performance. In recent months, Labour’s lead in the polls has averaged around five or six percentage points. Which is incredibly poor considering the state of Johnson’s personal fortune.
Starmer has another problem. He is no longer the future. The mantle of change can now be seized by a new Conservative leader.
They, not Sir Keir, were given a clean slate. It is the Tories – not Labor – who have the chance to run for voters again. And, despite the fratricidal stabbings, there are signs that they might get hold of it.
Significantly, what already stands out in the leadership race is not just the size but the diversity of the field. Rishi Sunak. Nadhim Zahawi. Suella Braverman. Penny Mordaunt. Kemi Badenoch. Liz Truss. Sajid Javid.
Work speaks a good game. But it’s striking how far the Conservative party outstrips them when it comes to promoting talented Asian, Black and female MPs.
Significantly, what already stands out in the leadership race is not just the size but the diversity of the field. Rishi Sunak. Nadhim Zahawi. Suella Braverman. Penny Mordaunt. Kemi Badenoch. Liz Truss. Sajid Javid
By comparison, Sir Keir Starmer looks very masculine, pale and stale.
But a diverse brand image will not be enough. The challenges facing government may not be insurmountable, but they are significant. And to overcome them, whichever candidate wins will need to grasp the following truths.
First, they have to realize that, as always, “it’s the economy, you idiot.” This is the issue that will determine the fate of the Conservative Party. Inflation must be brought under control. Spending must be reduced. Taxes must be reduced.
These are the cornerstones upon which the post-Johnson era will be built. Upgrading is important. It is necessary to secure the opportunities offered by Brexit. But uncompromising fiscal prudence – after the Monopoly-like spending of the megastates of the Covid years – is non-negotiable.
Second, sacrificing seats in the blue wall to save seats in the red wall is politically unsustainable. Boris has done a brilliant job securing 20 or 30 seats in former Labor strongholds. But as Tiverton and North Shropshire have proven, traditional Tory voters are tired of being taken for granted.
As one leadership candidate told me, “The problem is that we haven’t been conservative enough. We have pursued a New Labor strategy – build a bridge here or a road there. We have forgotten the main Thatcherian messages of opportunity and wealth creation. And the last thing Conservative MPs need to understand is this. You can’t have a Boris Johnson political strategy without Boris Johnson. There is no one in the Conservative ranks – or, indeed, in the ranks of any other party – who can match his charismatic or populist touch. Any search for the “new Boris” will prove fruitless.
Yes, the Conservative Party must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The defiant axis built between London and Kyiv must be maintained. There can be no surrender in the war against the warriors of progressive culture. The fight against the channel smugglers must be won.
BUT the next Prime Minister must be his own wife. Or man. The one thing Brits hate about politicians is inauthenticity. They’ve had enough already as St Keir roams the airwaves, picking up an ax for another pledge he peddled while tricking the Corbynites into giving him control of their party.
So there’s no point in conservatives giving a blonde wig to Rishi Sunak, an ill-fitting suit to Tom Tugenhadt, or a woolen beanie and oversized jogging shorts to Liz Truss. Whoever gets the keys to No. 10 must lead on their own terms and with their own mandate.
Boris’ assassination was brutal. A number of Conservative members and supporters are still bruised and baffled by his passing.
But what is done is done. We remain in the midst of a European war. A cost of living crisis. An ongoing struggle with Brussels over the shape of Brexit.
Conservative MPs need to grow up. And they need to cheer themselves up. It’s been a wild week. But if they keep a cool head, they will understand why this could still be a good week for their party and their country.