There was a gleam in the shadow minister’s eye. ‘Wait for Keir’s speech tomorrow,’ he told me. ‘There’s a funny little rabbit in it. He is going to finish off Boris and his men.’
Rabbit was the Labor leader’s announcement that if he became Prime Minister he would put the Take Back Control Bill at the center of his first King’s Speech. The pledge itself fell flat, with no details given about what exactly this transformative piece of legislation would include. But the political symbolism was clear. ‘I’m coming for Boris’s Blue Wall voters!’ Starr was declaring.
The next day, I met another shadow minister. We chatted about the general political landscape, with him offering an upbeat assessment of Labor’s prospects. Then she asked with a hint of panic: ‘What’s going to happen to Boris? Do you think they might try to bring him back?’
Team Starmer’s official line is ‘no decency’. The next general election – in 2024 – will be a tough fight. Even securing a small majority would be a struggle. Nothing can be taken for granted.
‘I’m coming for Boris’s Blue Wall voters!’ Starr was declaring. Image: Queen Elizabeth giving a speech during a visit to UCL in the Olympic Park, London
However, the private line is different. Senior Labor strategists are convinced that Rishi Sunak has already pulled off a bust.
‘For some reason Sunak has decided to take a “as steady as it goes” approach to the worst economic and social crisis since the 1990s. ‘If the Tories want to turn things round, they need to try something radical. Even Liz Truss understood it. But Sunak is sitting back and playing it safe. And that’s fine with us.
Which is why, if Boris Johnson is not directly in Starmer’s line of sight, he is in his mind. Sunak hasn’t done anything since becoming PM that has given sleepless nights to Labor leaders. But the idea of a dramatic comeback for the Tory party’s favorite prodigal son certainly does.
‘I looked at my focus groups from the time Boris resigned,’ explained a shadow minister, ‘and there were a bunch of 2019 Labour-to-Tory switch-voters who were saying, “Enough, Boris my is dead for.” , He has let me down. I will not vote for him again.” And that was enough to give us a majority.’
But he added: ‘There was an even bigger group – and it was growing – who were saying, “Look, we know who Boris is. We don’t agree with what he did at Partygate. Got through. They gave the vaccine. He’s done fine on Ukraine. Just get off his back, and let him get on with it, and see if he can do something for us again.
Another Labor strategist put it more graphically. ‘The Tories who got rid of Boris were gold dust to us. It brought into play this whole group of voters who were out of reach. There are a bunch of constituencies that we thought we could win and now we think we should. And that means we can start prioritizing in terms of resources and leadership visits.
Of course, an element of mischief is attached to the frankness with which Starr’s aides speak of their fear of Boris’ return. As one commented to me: ‘The fad hasn’t been able to get Boris off his back. The months between now and the local elections in May are going to be filled with endless speculation about whether Boris will act.’
This is more than just speculation. As one of Boris’s closest friends, Nadine Dorries, put it bluntly in today’s Sunday Mail: ‘The future of Conservative MPs is in their own hands and they have one simple question to ask themselves: whether Whether he wants to remain an MP or not. ,
‘It is an indisputable fact that, under Boris’ leadership, more of them will return to Westminster than anyone else who has led the party after the general election… It is bring Boris back or die.’
Such a scenario is creating a strange convergence between the interests of Sunak and Starr.
Inside Number 10, there is a growing realization that Boris represents a real threat. Inside Starr’s office, there is a belief that he is the only threat.
As a result, some Labor MPs feel that parts of Downing Street have decided the time has come to neutralize Boris’ threat – with their assistance. A Labor MP told me, ‘We are putting up some parliamentary questions that raise issues about Boris and his time in government,’ and until now, such questions would have been withheld. But suddenly we are getting very good information. It’s almost as if someone decided, “If you want to kill Boris, we won’t stand in your way.” ,
Meanwhile, there is another reason why some on the Tory side believe the ‘Johnson sore’ cannot be allowed to fester much longer.
Sunak’s focus is solely on finding a way to deal with the myriad crises besetting his government.
Senior Labor strategist is convinced Rishi Sunak has already pulled off a bust
A friend of the Prime Minister told me: ‘He is not stopping. His officers can’t believe how much time he spends on his papers. He was on a plane the other day, but when his food arrived he just waved it away. He worked throughout the flight.
But the battle for the next election has started around him. The political guru who delivered victory in the Brexit referendum and the 2019 election is staring at his laptop and whiteboard, trying to plot a strategy for another upset. And they are fighting.
‘The problem is we are trying to make a plan to win the next election,’ a cabinet minister confessed, ‘but we don’t know for whom the plan is.
‘If it is sage, then we have to follow a special strategy. If it’s Boris, we’ll need something completely different. But it is impossible to come up with advertisements, lines of attack or manifesto commitments that work for both the men as they are completely different politicians and personalities.’
Labor is also a similar problem to an extent. They are on a campaign with the aim of defeating Rishi Sunak. And if Boris were to return to No. 10, his own plans would have to be scuppered.
But unlike his Tory counterparts, Starmer and his team are not conflicted about which opponent they would choose to run against in 2024.
‘Keir is not a demonstrative man,’ said a friend of his, ‘but you should have seen him the day Boris announced he was going to resign. He was going around the office high-fiveing everyone.
‘I’ve never seen him high-five in my life.’
Many Tory MPs see the prospect of Boris returning with dread. ‘This cannot be. not going to happen. I will do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen,’ a cabinet minister told me.
That antipathy may be well founded. The challenge to Boris’ leadership will create new chaos at the heart of government. And voters are unlikely to take kindly to another bout of Tory infighting – one that could result in a fourth prime minister within a year.
But there is no doubt what Labor fears most.
Boris’s cheerleader Nadine Dorries writes today, ‘With Sage at number 10, we are heading into the long, cold and brutal wasteland of ungrateful opposition.’ Sir Keir Starmer would wholeheartedly agree.
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