Opinion

Gavin Esler: With talk of a May election, what is Keir Starmer up to?

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a columnist for The Irish News and a former presenter of Newsnight and author of books including Britain Is Better Than This.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer could face off in a general election as early as next May
Prime minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer could face off in a general election as early as next May Prime minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer could face off in a general election as early as next May

WHAT is Keir Starmer up to?

The Labour leader says there is no money for a spending spree if he wins the next general election. He has praised Margaret Thatcher in the Telegraph newspaper.

That short article brought together two demons for the Labour Left. The Telegraph is seen as the Conservative party house journal, and Mrs Thatcher – you probably do not need reminding – is the Tory prime minister who took on the miners and the IRA hunger strikers while, as Starmer put it, she let loose Britain’s natural “entrepreneurialism”. (Is that even a word?)

General election in May?

Cue outrage on the Left. But to understand Starmer’s strategy, one key fact is helpful. Labour figures have told me they believe Rishi Sunak will call the general election next May. That’s because local elections are already scheduled that month, and the polls suggest another demoralising and disastrous Conservative performance.

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Sunak could end up leading an even more fractious party if he delays the election until October and, Labour sources say, a snap May election would end (temporarily) Conservative in-fighting.

Right now no one – probably not even Rishi Sunak himself – can be sure about the election date, but May is on the minds of everyone at Westminster.

Some angry Labour supporters, however, think Starmer praised Mrs Thatcher to encourage Telegraph readers to switch to Labour. That would be – at best – the triumph of hope over experience.

Not endorsing Thatcher

Starmer himself says he is making a very different argument. He praised three post-war British prime ministers – Clement Attlee, Tony Blair and Thatcher – for having a coherent vision, whether you like their policies or not. And Starmer is, he says, absolutely not endorsing Thatcher’s policies.

Former prime ministers Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher had coherent visions, whether you liked their policies or not
Former prime ministers Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher had coherent visions, whether you liked their policies or not Former prime ministers Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher had coherent visions, whether you liked their policies or not

What he is doing is framing himself as a leader for everyone in Britain – not just Labour supporters – and a leader with vision, unlike the stumbling, faction-ridden mess of the post-Thatcher Johnson-Truss-Sunak Conservative party.

His article also raises an even bigger question, one of legacy.

In Northern Ireland, Tony Blair – whatever his errors – remains a key architect of the Good Friday Agreement. Across the UK he invested hugely in schools, the NHS and other public services. Clement Attlee created “the New Jerusalem”, the welfare state, the NHS, along with a sweeping list of other achievements. Mrs Thatcher was also a bringer of great change, even if you loathe her privatisations and pit closures.

Starmer’s point is not merely to aspire to the achievements of those three very significant leaders. He is also beginning a conversation about how the Thatcherite mantra of re-shaping the British economy through mass privatisations is not working in the 2020s.

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Travel from Fermanagh to Finchley or Aberdeen to Aberystwyth and you will see underfunded public services everywhere. Schools with large class sizes? School buildings needing repairs? Local authorities strapped for cash? Potholes? Train and bus services no one can rely upon? Pollution in rivers, sewage in seas, algae blooms in Lough Neagh? Health care? And so on.

A May election means Labour will repeatedly ask if we feel our lives are better today than a few years ago. It also means Starmer positioning himself for more than one term in Downing Street, with a long term vision like those other three prime ministers.

Sir Keir Starmer is attempting to frame himself as a leader for everyone in Britain
Sir Keir Starmer is attempting to frame himself as a leader for everyone in Britain Sir Keir Starmer is attempting to frame himself as a leader for everyone in Britain

And that’s why he met the Greek prime minister, Kyrios Mitsotakis, when Rishi Sunak had so unwisely snubbed him. Starmer says he was happy to tell Mr Mitsotakis that the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum will not be handed back to Greece. And that brings us back to the key question. What is Keir Starmer up to?

The old Blairite plan was to set an Objective, then figure out a Strategy, then worry about Tactics.

Winning is Starmer’s objective. Appearing statesmanlike is the strategy. And the tactics include a recognition that Margaret Thatcher was an important historical figure while questioning her legacy.

Objective, Strategy, Tactics worked for Blair. He won three elections. Will it work for Starmer in 2024? That’s what he hopes.

:: Gavin Esler is author most recently of Britain Is Better Than This.