No endorsement for Starmer, but Johnson could hand him the keys to Number 10

By Matt Brady

The Tory Party is now faced with a dilemma. Their deep unpopularity was highlighted by an election drubbing at two ends of England and confirms that the winning coalition put together by Boris Johnson in 2019 has fallen apart. Unless they change course, they may find themselves allowing Keir Starmer to become the next Prime Minister, despite his own evident lack of popularity.

Labour managed only a respectable victory in Wakefield. At 47.9% the Labour vote in this former stronghold was slightly lower than Corbyn achieved in 2017 at a 49.7% vote share, despite the massive unpopularity of this Tory government. The main results of the by-elections are set out below, compared to the 2019 general election.

Election Results Compared, %

Political commentators point out that the last Prime Minister to lose two by-elections on the same night was John Major, who went on to lose the following general election in 1997. Even though mid-term by-elections tend to exaggerate underlying trends, many Tory MPs will now be wondering how secure their own seats are with a loss of 17.3% of the vote in Wakefield and 21.7% in Tiverton.

The crisis of the Tory Party is driven above all by the cost of living crisis. This is not going to improve in the foreseeable future. The level of business investment has declined even from exceptionally weak levels since before the pandemic began. So prospects for growth are bleak. At the same time, rising commodities’ prices and the fall in the Pound versus the US Dollar mean that inflation is unlikely to subside markedly any time soon.

The question then becomes, do the Tories ditch their ‘proven winner’ Johnson and present themselves in an entirely different light, or is Johnson allowed to pursue his current trajectory?  He is leading a rightist government rightwards, fighting enemies at home and abroad, like Thatcher, while instituting racist policies and authoritarian legislation she could only dream of.

Naturally, many other variants are possible, but these are the two main identifiable options. In either event, the Tories will have willing support in the media, including the BBC and ‘liberal press’. They will also find no opposition from Starmer.

In response, the reports that the Shadow Cabinet demands a ‘boring’ Starmer must be bolder, Labour’s leader has gone into hiding. A much-touted speech on Brexit (where Starmer finally gave up all pretence at being a Remainer) was actually delivered by David Lammy, to widespread indifference. As for the Shadow Cabinet itself, Labour’s own lack of progress was met only with calls to select a candidate now to stand against Jeremy Corbyn at the general election.

Wakefield is actually the first Labour gain under this rotten government, from ten by-election contests. Even some Starmer supporters accept that the win in Wakefiled owed more to stay at home Tory voters than any upsurge in Labour support.

Starmer and his advisers seem to believe that the premiership will simply fall into his lap as it did with Blair and a completely discredited Tory government.  They may even be right. But it is a high-risk strategy which depends on Labour voters turning out even while offering them no incentive beyond how odious this government is.

The economic backdrop to the rail workers’ strike means that class antagonisms seem sure to rise in the coming period.  Starmer’s refusal to defend anyone resisting this government cannot possibly win great support.  He risks being condemned to irrelevance if the Tories do ditch Johnson, or if Johnson stays and doubles down on his reactionary agenda.