Every candidate in the Conservative leadership race has been keen to claim that they are the one Labour would fear should they become Prime Minister. Which is strange, as most have little to no evidence to back this up. Despite wild claims from the likes of Penny Mourdant that the polls showed she was the candidate capable of beating Keir Starmer, the reality is that when asked to directly choose between a Starmer-led government and a Conservative Government led by any of the final three, none came within 10 points of beating Labour, as our polling article below shows.
So, is there a candidate left Keir Starmer should fear? Or can the party honestly say it is ready for either of them? As the leadership race descended into a series of increasingly vicious blue-on-blue attacks, Labour has found itself in an ideal position, with the luxury of being able to sit back and let the spectacle speak for itself, while occasionally stirring up a bit more trouble from the sidelines, seeking to table a largely meaningless confidence vote, for example. It’s an approach that has been effective too, with the latest Britain Elects model showing an 11-point lead and predicting a Labour majority.
However, Labour can’t rely on the Conservatives’ continued implosion forever and whatever the outcome of the leadership contest, Starmer will need to pivot Labour’s strategy accordingly. For many, a central criticism of Starmer has been his overreliance on the idea that, as long as the party maintains a sheen of bland competence, people will vote Labour at the next election because they’re sick of the Conservatives rather than because they want a Labour government.
Whist it’s certainly true that the Johnson period saw Labour focus relentlessly on the character of the Prime Minister, this was arguably sometimes out of necessity, as the round-the-clock drama of the Boris show was the only story in town. Attempts to stay relevant over the past couple of weeks with big policy speeches on Brexit, economic policy and public services have largely fallen under the radar. If the next Prime Minister can successfully shift the focus back onto policies, and enjoy a bounce in the polls, Labour will find itself under much greater pressure to show it’s capable of setting out a vision for the country that goes beyond three-word slogans, and the great four word slogan: ‘we’re not the Tories’.
But that’s a big if and the reality is that, whether it’s Truss or Sunak walking into No.10, their characters will remain the most tempting attack line for Labour. Sunak, while more popular with the public at large, is arguably easier to attack with his culpability for Johnson’s economic policies and his billionaire non-dom wife. But Truss was also a Johnson loyalist until the end, and so arguably bears just as much responsibility for the Conservative economic policies she’s trying to distance herself from as Sunak does.
The real answer to the question of who Labour should fear most is that – whatever the outcome – after 12 years of Conservative government, a Labour party that can present a coherent and positive alternative vision should have nothing to fear. Whether that’s something Starmer is capable of a) delivering and b) getting cut through for, is another question entirely.