The Spectator

The Tories are too weak to capitalise on Labour’s failings

Getty Images

The polls suggest that Labour is in line for a general election victory later this year which could match or even exceed Tony Blair’s landslide of 1997. Yet the party exudes none of the confidence and maintains none of the self-discipline which it did 27 years ago. On the contrary, were the Conservatives not in an even worse state themselves, Keir Starmer’s party could well be in deep trouble.

For Labour to contrive to lose a safe seat in the current circumstances is remarkable. But that is exactly what the party has done with its failure to vet properly Azhar Ali, the candidate chosen to fight the Rochdale by-election following the death of the sitting MP Tony Lloyd. Comments made by Ali shortly after the atrocities committed by Hamas against Israel last year were indefensible. His claim, made openly at a Labour party meeting, that the Israeli government knew of the coming attacks but tolerated them so as to have a pretext to attack Gaza, is the stuff of conspiracy theory, made all the more offensive given how many Israeli citizens were killed in the attacks.

Not only did the party fail to pick up on Ali’s comments before selecting him to fight the seat – Starmer then hesitated before disowning him as the Labour candidate. Ali cannot be replaced on the ballot paper because nominations have closed.

It is unfortunate that the Tories are in no condition to capitalise on Labour’s problems

This indecisive leadership – Starmer prevaricated for long enough for some of his colleagues to end up defending Ali – has brought protest from within the Labour party. Not so much from members shocked at what Ali had said, as from people aggrieved that Starmer had moved to expel left-wing figures for making anti-Semitic remarks.

The Rochdale fiasco comes soon after Starmer abandoning his promise to spend £28 billion a year on green investment. To be clear, he is wise to drop a spending target which threatened to undermine even further Britain’s delicate public finances. But it does raise the issue of why the pledge was made in the first place, when Starmer must surely have known that money was going to be horribly tight by the time of the next election. The Labour leader has managed to upset both those who prioritise fiscal discipline and those who favour a Joe Biden-style pump-priming spending splurge on the climate. Into the bargain, Starmer has cemented his reputation as someone who can’t stick to his guns for long.

It is unfortunate that the Conservatives are in no condition to capitalise on Labour’s internal problems. Were the polls showing a gap between Labour and the Tories of the order of 10 per cent, it is conceivable that could be bridged before election day. Instead, Labour is consistently leading by about double that. So Starmer can probably afford to make mistakes – including pretty big ones – and still be confident of victory. Many Conservative MPs have announced that they intend to step down at the next election.

Their self-centredness is depressing. A Conservative victory later this year may be beyond hope, yet the party still retains some influence over whether it faces a one-, two-, or three-term Labour government. Even if they don’t believe they can win, Tory MPs ought to be working as hard as they can to reduce the Labour majority to a level where it might take only a single parliament to haul themselves back into power. At present, the choice facing the Tories seems to be between defeat and obliteration – with the latter option seeming more likely.

Chris Skidmore, who has quit to embark on a career of green consultancy work, said he has moved on from party politics. As a result of his reluctance to continue serving his soon-to-be-abolished constituency to the end, he has triggered a by-election. Party politics served Skidmore well. He has gone from history graduate to minister of state to professor at Bath University. Meanwhile, Nadine Dorries abandoned her constituents in a rage that she was not given a peerage. This is a new kind of Tory sleaze: MPs putting themselves ahead of their constituents and public service. We now have a class of MPs who see their roles as simply a way to progress their careers.

One thing Conservative MPs should be doing if they want any chance of holding power within the next decade is to drop any talk of yet another leadership election. The party is already held in contempt by many for rattling through five prime ministers in the past eight years, one of them serving only 49 days. They have seen the damage that the traumas of 2022 have wrought on the party. Do MPs really think they will improve their fortunes by going through yet another divisive leadership election? The ‘What is there to lose?’ argument is easily answered. Voters would rapidly switch off or demand the general election be brought forward. The Conservatives could even find themselves pushed into third place behind Reform UK.

Bookmakers give the Conservatives a 6 percent chance of winning a majority at the next election. But Starmer has given every sign that a government led by him would be weak, devoid of conviction and not greatly competent, either. The challenge for the Conservatives over the next few months will be to avoid losing the 2029 election, too.