The last two weeks have not been great for the Conservative Party. From the leaking of private conversations, to accusations of heresy against the tribal Goddess Thatcher, and the suggestion that the leadership of a particular pair of candidates might “murder” our party, it has become an item of faith amongst most commentators that the Tories are currently writing Labour’s next attack ads for them.
That’s especially due to the rival accusations of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak that their opponent’s economic policy is “socialist”. If even the two candidates battling each other to be our next Prime Minister don’t believe the other is fiscally credible, it is all the easier for Labour to paint themselves as the sensible alternative and a government in waiting. What can be so bad about socialism, if even the Tories are doing it?
It is obviously a rum affair if the Tory Party is allowing Labour – the party that has left always left economic disaster in its wake – to seize the mantle of financial sanity. But their claim to being the grown ups across the floor in the House of Commons only survives on the basis that the last two weeks have seen journo eyes turned elsewhere.
So it falls to me to turn them back on the opposition. Of course, playing a quick game of “whataboutery” doesn’t erase the Tories’ current difficulties, or the obvious damage that Sunak and Truss’s current rancorous debate is doing to the public image of our party. But it does show just how dangerous handing power to Labour would be – as it always is.
Currently, Starmer and his acolytes find themselves in a tizzy over two issues to do with the railways: namely, their hypothetical re-nationalisation, and the recent strikes. In both cases, the major split is between a leader desperate to restore his party’s record after the horrors of Corbynism, and MPs unwilling to fully move on from Magic Grandpa.
In the former case, Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor, recently ruled out a future Labour government renationalising the railways since it did not fit into her “fiscal rules” for day-to-day spending. This rather contradicted the words of Louise Haigh, the Shadow Transport Secretary, who recently told the ASLEF Journal that Labour was “totally committed to public ownership” of railways.
Haigh went on, in that same article, to call such a move “rational common sense”. That is not something that can be said of Reeves comments once she’d realised her blunder, said that she hadn’t heard her interlocuter’s question. So Labour’s official line is that they are “pragmatic about public ownership as long as it sits within our fiscal rules”. So that’s alright then.
But this messaging trainwreck – ahem – didn’t stop there. Only yesterday, Starmer ordered his frontbenchers to stay away from Militant Mick and the pernicious picketers of the RMT. Yet Sam Tarry – his Shadow Transport Minister (despite his pretensions) and a close, erm, friend of Angela Rayner – was out showing solidarity. By the end of the day, he had been sacked.
In both cases, we see a conflict between Starmer’s attempts to wrench his party back towards the electorate, and the socialist pretensions of those MPs and Shadow Ministers who have not got over the reheated Bennism of his predecessor. It is a timely reminder to those who hoped that Labour had overcome its divisions that they were not temporary, but baked in.
You could suggest the viciousness of this leadership contest was due to a particular malice known only to top Tories. But to do so would be to conveniently forget the splits that divided Labour under Corbyn, under Miliband, under Brown and Blair, under Kinnock – and probably, for good measure, under every Labour leader dating back to Keir Hardie.
Moreover, the pace of political life in the age of 24 hour news and Twitter is much faster. Splits are more obvious, action required more urgently. There is no long march through the institutions now – conflict between Labour’s left and right is blatantly on show, and a response from Starmer required as quickly as a journalist can tweet a question at him.
The same is true for the Conservatives. Our current leadership difficulties mean that we are hogging the news agenda, whilt Labour’s crack-up is meanwhile confined to Guido Fawkes and the letters page of The Guardian. It will remain there as long as our ex-Chancellor and current Foreign Secretary continue to insist on tearing lumps out of each other.
You might expect, therefore, for me to call on the two candidates to now kiss and make up, to stop the negative briefing, and focus on the future of the party that both claim to love enough to want to lead. But all that is too obvious to need saying. If Sunak and Truss cannot see that all this negativity will be disastrous, then they are not fit to be in Downing Street.
Instead, a reminder. I have commented already that this government (whomever leads it) is going the way of Edward Heath’s, smashed on the rocks of rising inflation, strikes, and an energy crisis. It will be all the more so if Truss decides to imitate the Barber Boom, or if Sunak persists with a quite revolution so subtle that Tory members fail to hear it.
The Labour Party of 1974 was divided: between left and right, over Europe, and over Harold Wilson and his potential successors. But it still won the two elections of that deeply depressing year, on the back of the failures of the Tories to grasp the country’s problems. The cliché that divided parties don’t win elections is wrong.
So if our two contenders really do what to keep Sir Starmer and his merry band of squabbling socialists out of Number 10, they need to get their act together and sort out our myriad crises. If not, then even an opposition as underwhelming as Starmer’s could have a clear path to power.
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