In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Her Majesty’s loyal opposition has elected a new leadership team in Sir Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner.
Over the weekend, Starmer moved quickly to appoint a shadow cabinet as he looks to build a team capable of holding the government to account in the current situation and beyond to a future general election.
Inside No. 10 and Conservative party headquarters, there will have been a quiet sense of serenity when considering the potential threat of Starmer’s Labour over the months and years ahead. The convincing victory gives him the mandate he needs to transform Labour into a party that is capable of winning a general election – a task easier said than done when the scale of the defeat in December 2019 is factored into a new campaign plan.
The Corbyn era will now be consigned to history, but many Conservatives MPs will already be wistful at the electoral shield Corbyn and McDonell gave many Tory MPs up and down the country.
So what will be the upshot of Starmer and his new shadow cabinet? For the government, it is a problem for another time. The feeling at CCHQ and amongst top aides will be that the current crisis is the only topic that matters. It is what will motivate voters in years to come. We don’t need to go far back in history to remember narrative setting events like Black Wednesday, the Iraq war, an EU referendum. They all crystallized in the voter’s minds based on a perception of competence of those fortunate to or those who wish to reside in No. 10 Downing Street. Once a view has formed amongst the electorate, it is very difficult to shift. Jeremy Corbyn, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith can all attest to such a rule of British politics.
For many in the current government, the candidate feared most was not the newly crowned leader. It was Lisa Nandy. For all the hype around the “North”, it is important to consider how Starmer plays not in SW1 and amongst the media – but how he resonates in places like North West Durham, Wrexham and with “Workington Man”. Lisa Nandy always polled well amongst swing voters and Starmer’s team know he has work to do in boosting his popularity outside London and on the issues that resonate.
The highly capable Angela Rayner can support Starmer in that ambition as an effective media performer. In parallel, the appointment of very able politicians like Nick Thomas-Symonds to his shadow cabinet can really help Labour build a narrative as a government in waiting.
The Labour party must now come together and get behind Starmer. The electoral tests are not far away, despite the current hiatus. Fixing a fractious relationship between the most senior Labour leader in power with first minister Mark Drakeford AM in Wales and leader Richard Leonard MSP in Scotland is vital ahead of campaigns that will soon begin in earnest for the assembly elections in 2021. Whether he likes it or not, Starmer will need to be seen to be making headway in these key elections.
The necessity of a strong opposition is more important than ever before given the circumstances. The Corbyn and Momentum experiment was fully tested over five years but ultimately left the party searching for an electoral winning recipe. The Conservative party team will be relaxed about Starmer at this point; after all, the old adage is as true as ever – oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.
Our Public Affairs team will be keeping a watching eye on proceedings during this new political period. The next days and weeks will determine how the next chapter is written for both main political parties. The stakes could not be higher.