History will remember Keir Starmer’s role in the
Conservative Party’s downfall

History will remember Keir Starmer’s role in the Conservative Party’s downfall

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You know the narrative: the Conservative Party scuppered its majority won at the 2019 general election through a series of brazen, captivating self-immolatory acts. First Boris Johnson, the party’s most electorally successful leader since the heydey of Thatcherism, was expelled from Downing Street in 2022 after a mass exodus of ministers. The heir to Johnson’s agency of chaos was Liz Truss, who lit the short fuse of her premiership with the “mini-budget”. Since October 2022, Rishi Sunak has doomed his party less spectacularly, but no less conclusively. 

Ultimately, the cumulative effect of five years of majority government since 2019 has reduced this once-venerable party to an unruly bundle of vengeful factions, caucuses and groupings: a near-total political decomposition. With polling day less than a week away, the Conservative Party remains 20 points behind Labour in the polls; indeed, by Rishi Sunak’s own reckoning, whomever serves as Tory leader after 4 July could confront a commons “super-majority”. 

In this story, however, it is striking how little agency is afforded to the primary beneficiary of the Conservative Party’s combustion, and the man set to lead this supposed “super-majority”: Sir Keir Starmer. Over five years of political tumult, one standard telling has it, the Labour leader has at best featured as a side character. He is dismissed as a “lucky general”, of Napoleon’s fancy, readily receiving a political windfall from an entirely self-inflicted political meltdown.

This is a framing arguably borne out by the polling data. According to Ipsos, Keir Starmer has a net satisfaction rating of -19 — worse than Jeremy Corbyn on the eve of the 2017 election (-11) and the same as Ed Miliband in 2015. It compares similarly poorly to Conservative leader Michael Howard in 2005 (-10) and Neil Kinnock in 1992 (-7). Ultimately, a leader on the cusp of power — especially a majority the size the polls predict this election — should be expected to boast a better score. David Cameron, after all, recorded a net satisfaction rating in 2010 of +3; Tony Blair’s in 1997 was +22; and Margaret Thatcher’s in 1979 was +11. 

As such, the Labour Party’s likely victory next week will be recording-breaking not merely on account of its vast majority — but the obstacle the party overcame, according to these numbers, in its deadweight leader.

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The commentary on this campaign has followed a familiar pattern, with the bulk of attention focussed on the Conservative Party’s rolling gaffes and scandals — as opposed to the Labour leader’s allegedly non-existent nous. And in recent days, matters have culminated in allegations of Tory officials and candidates betting on the election date, and their subsequent belated suspension at the hands of Rishi Sunak. 

“Gamble-gate” suits Keir Starmer politically, above all, because it befits the narrative of Conservative moral frivolousness that has featured in our politics since the days of Boris Johnson. But there is a lesser but nonetheless significant additional consideration here: “Gamble-gate” suits Starmer because it plays directly into his messaging and strengths as a political operator. 

The Labour leader’s initial reaction to “Gamble-gate” was to say that anyone accused of similar conduct in his ranks would “be gone and their feet would not have touched the floor”. This was a strong line on two counts: first, it was credible — Starmer has never missed an opportunity to dispel a Labour candidate on the imprecise grounds of bringing his party into “disrepute”; and, second, Starmer has repeatedly stated that his overall objective is to return politics to “service”, drawing on the public’s dissatisfaction with perceived wrongdoing in public office. 

This latter message calls back, ultimately, to one of the first decisions Starmer’s team made back in 2020: that the Labour leader should embrace his lawyerlyness and trust that, in time, it would contrast reassuringly with Boris Johnson’s bluster. As the Conservative Party’s political hegemony — seemingly solidified by the Covid pandemic — has crumbled in recent years, Starmer receives his reward. Indeed, whether the Conservative chaos has been borne of Johnsonian, Trussite or Sunakian designs, Starmer’s argument has been consistent. 

Ultimately, “Gamble-gate” is an instructive episode that allows us to reconstruct Starmer’s agency and locate it throughout the grand tale of Tory decline. And a strikingly similar observation can be made of the Conservative Party’s other notable unforced error this campaign: the prime minister’s D-Day gaffe. 

As political miscalculations go, Sunak’s D-Day debacle was grimly perfect. On the doorstep, activists of all parties attest that Sunak’s absenteeism continues to cut-through — with the Conservative base depressed and the prime minister’s judgement again questioned. But perhaps even more potently, Sunak’s decision to leave Normandy early saw Keir Starmer look more prime ministerial than ever.

This latter point is true, in part, because Starmer has made emphasising his party’s patriotism and commitment to security a priority since becoming leader in 2020. Sunak’s D-Day debacle enabled Starmer to exhibit his credentials as a prime minister in waiting, who understands Britain’s national story and his role in honouring it. The Labour manifesto, tellingly, features a photo of Starmer and Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, taken in the prime minister’s absence. 

As such, Keir Starmer, that supposedly dry ex-civil servant, has established himself as a ruthless political operator. Through 2020-2023 in particular, the Labour leader found solace in his ability to govern and mould his party. By disempowering and dispossessing his left flank, the Labour leader exhibited a propensity for taking significant but calculated risks: a trait that has only strengthened as Starmer’s pursuit of power has progressed.

Starmer’s ratcheting ruthlessness, in the end, is the prism through which we should seek to understand recent Conservative defections to the Labour Party. Turncoat after turncoat — from Christian Wakeford through to Mark Logan — Starmer has worked to utterly enervate his Tory opponents. Many within Labour voice opposition to Starmer’s decision to welcome Conservative MPs, but each instance has strengthened the sense of decay and decline that envelops Rishi Sunak’s party.

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It is also worth stressing that, especially since Boris Johnson’s ouster, Starmer has emerged almost entirely unscathed from the Conservative Party’s political attacks. 

Take the Rishi Sunak approach, for example: since entering No 10 in October 2022, Sunak has vacillated wildly between strategies in a bid to slight Starmer — leaping onto any passing bandwagon before eventually careering off course. With hyper-political pitches on all of net zero, migration and security, Sunak has at every turn sought to coarsen the political debate and shunt Labour onto the wrong side of public opinion.

But throughout this process, Starmer has picked his battles well and, for the most part, won them. For instance, the Labour leader has pledged to restore the UK’s net zero targets to their more ambitious former selves — prior to Sunak’s tinkering. Meanwhile, he continues to rubbish the government’s Rwanda deportation plan as an expensive, overly elaborate gimmick. The Rwanda plan, contrary to pre-election reports that suggested Labour could soften its standing, is today the epitome of Labour’s own favourite dividing line: “effective” versus “performative” government.

Duly, according to Ipsos, the public views Labour as having the best policies on most key issues. That includes on managing the economy (33 per cent to the Conservative Party’s 23 per cent), asylum and immigration (25 per cent to 12 per cent), taxation (28 per cent to 20 per cent), and Britain’s future relationship with the EU (28 per cent to 15 per cent). 

During Sunak’s premiership, Starmer has remained, if not politically untouchable, certainly politically untouched. The Labour leader’s rope-a-dope politics has seen his opponents swing so recklessly that their fatigued nature has become increasingly, glaringly plain. Chasing Starmer across the political spectrum, Sunak has sapped his party of any remaining intellectual energy. Even this campaign’s apparent focus on “security” has waned over time; not that it especially troubled Starmer. 

And, all the while, Starmer has slowly enlarged his infamous “small target” to include policies such as railway re-nationalisation, the creation of a National Wealth Fund and strengthening workers’ rights — as well as tax rises on non-domiciled residents, oil and gas companies, private schools and private equity executives. For some, Starmer’s canniest trick of all has been to style a transformative policy programme as merely “cautious”. Sunak, unfortunately for the Conservative Party, was too busy sorting his strategies to notice. 

At the very least then, Starmer has positioned himself astutely and deprived Rishi Sunak of any “game-changer” moments. (The prime minister, like Starmer only elected as an MP in 2015, has proven that getting the fundamentals right is far from a given). 

But we can go further than this: in the end, Starmer’s strategic sense and political steeliness mean that the Conservative Party’s decline is not solely a story of self-destruction.

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on X/Twitter here.

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website. Subscribe to our daily newsletter for all the latest election news and analysis.

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