Picture credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Artillery Row

There is no conservative case for Keir Starmer

Despairing at the Tories is understandable, but the opposition of your opposition is not your ally

Fifty years ago, addressing an audience of 1,500 people in Birmingham’s Mecca Dance Hall, Enoch Powell stood up and stabbed Edward Heath very firmly in the front. Having refused to stand again for the Conservatives in the imminent snap election, Powell now aimed to bury a man he virulently disdained in an act of treachery that even Judas might have thought was pretty poor form.

Declaring that Heath had taken Britain into the European Economic Community without a mandate, repudiating the manifesto on which he had been elected, Powell said the election was “first and last” in which voters would be able to keep Britain a “democratic nation”. If Heath would not give them a say on Britain’s sovereignty, there was another party that would: Harold Wilson’s Labour. 

Powell stopped short of instructing his anti-Common Market disciples to tick a box next to the red team. But in declaring that “in…a conflict between the call of country and that of party, the call of country must come first” — and having coordinated the speech’s timing with Wilson after a chance meeting in the loos of the House of Commons — his intentions were as clear as they had been in 1968. 

Six years after his little history lesson about the River Tiber, Powell was Britain’s most popular and influential politician. The election brought a 4 per cent swing to Labour in his West Midlands home turf. Both Heath and Powell were convinced that the latter’s intervention had swung enough disillusioned Tories to enable Wilson to scrape back into Downing Street, according to Simon Heffer.

As was usual with post-war Britain’s premier politician, prophet, and prima donna, Powell’s public repudiation of his former party was driven by high principle and personal animosity. Quite a few Conservatives find themselves feeling something similar ahead of our own looming general election. 

Michael Gove has made a half-decent stab at listing our party’s achievements for us over at ConservativeHome. But with the Surrey Svengali’s own school reforms excepted, most of us Tories are looking upon the collective record of our last five Prime Ministers as fourteen wasted years.

The charge sheet writes itself. Record immigration. Brexit stillborn. Taxes at a post-war high. You might signal to your particular ingroup by being more bothered about renting in Clapham or our inability to get a half dozen illegals to Rwanda. Either way, The Tories are a miserable failure, soon to reap their just deserts. 

Confronted by the latest Conservative government that has failed to set the clock back one second, capable of U-turning with an alacrity that would have made Heath blush, some ardent Tories doubt whether they can vote in good conscience for Rishi Sunak this year. They could sit the election out. They throw their lot in with the golf club bores of ReformUK. Or they could take Powell’s tacit advice, only half a century too late, and fall for the charms of the Starmer Sutra. Should Tories vote Labour?

No current Conservative can match Powell’s appeal. England does not stir at the mention of Simon Clarke’s name, as nice a man as he is. Nonetheless, for those of a YIMBY persuasion know Labour — not reliant on house price onanists in the South-East for re-election — would find it easier to pass the planning reform Boris Johnson ducked. Simone Hanna — self-identifying as young, bright, and on the right — has followed that logic to its conclusion. She backs Keir Starmer, out of economic rationality.

Housing is not the only area in which Labour’s hand would be freer. Daniel Hannan has suggested that Wes Streeting’s willingness to say that the NHS Emperor has no clothes could enable him to bring our healthcare into line with the private-public models favoured by the rest of the civilised world. Labour could also cut our burgeoning benefits bill without being accused of slaughtering the first born. The Triple Lock could be scrapped, since its major beneficiaries will be the only shmucks voting Tory. 

From the ideological spectrum’s opposite end, Aris Roussinos has switched to Labour to rebuild our withered state capacity that Johnson’s post-austerity pitch promised but couldn’t deliver. A radical Labour government could address our economy’s structural weaknesses in an age of insecurity. To quote Claire Perry O’Neill, ex-Tory and Starmer fan, Sunak cannot “deliver the big changes we need”. 

In fairness to Starmer, he tries his best to appeal to Conservatives. Dropping the £28 billion green splurge, no hikes to income tax, paying fealty to the Iron Lady: Starmer and Rachel Reeves have done all they can to suggest Labour promises anything but socialism in one country. Yes, one or two of their members might still be a bit fruity on Gaza. But Middle England can trust them with their finances. 

Yet for Tories to fall for Starmer’s siren song would be a mistake

Starmer’s greatest asset is his fundamental dullness. His last conference speech was pitched at those tired Tories wanting a quiet life after enduring 14 years of pygmies who peaked at Oxford playing out their psychological inadequacies at the nation’s pleasure. Labour promises to make politics boring again, to get Liz Truss off the telly, and build a few houses. Who couldn’t possibly want that? 

Yet for Tories to fall for Starmer’s siren song would be a mistake. Despite the comforting delusions of Labour’s more ardent supporters, the Starmer-Sue Gray axis will not fundamentally change Britain. The former has a bespoke piece of legislation outlining how his pension is funded; the latter is the Blob made flesh. They are doing very well out of late Britain, thank you very much. They have Clement Attlee’s dullness, without the radicalism, war record, or admirable love of the county championship. 

To be fair, they won’t be helped by entering office only after Jeremy Hunt spaffs every spare penny on ensuring his children pay a little less Inheritance Tax. Labour are desperate to spend, but the example of Trussonomics looms. In the absence of cash, their paucity of imagination is palpable. Much of their agenda merely extends New Labour’s evils. Ban fox hunting! But this time we really mean it. A small mercy is that they’re rowing back on scrapping the Lords, having discovered it votes their way.  

Starmer’s tedium enables onlookers to project onto his blushing jowls their own desires. Being little more than a late middle-aged bureaucrat who’d quite like to be PM, he says what the suits tell him he needs to to win power. Conservatives, disillusioned by their own party, might be taken in by this act. But they should remember he is still an ex-editor of Socialist Alternativesan adenoidal class warrior. 

One doesn’t have to be a Sunak groupie to suspect that Starmer will do no better

He happily served Jeremy Corbyn and copied his policies up until the point it started to harm his career. But those items of Labour’s agenda that have survived the pruning of Reeves still speak to solid socialist instincts. VAT on private school fees. Non-dom bashing. Race-baiting Equalities Acts. More red tape for businesses in the name of workers’ rights. Hardly the stuff of hearty Telegraph leaders.

One doesn’t have to be a Sunak groupie to suspect that Starmer will do no better — and quite likely worse — across immigration, the tax burden, the de facto decriminalisation of crime, and more. Prepare for unilateral disarmament in the culture wars, GB News pursued by Ofcom, and ever-growing fidelity to Brussels. At least we’ll get a laugh from seeing him trying to butter up Donald Trump. 

Even on the issue on which Labour are sound, I’m blackpilled enough to suspect they will fail to deliver. I’d love to get on the housing ladder before I’m 60. But how NIMBY will Labour’s MPs prove once in power? Any Tory voting for Starmer in the hope of carpeting southern England in New Towns will be bitterly disappointed — especially as any new homes will be immediately filled by migrants. 

Indeed, today’s Conservatives should remember the consequences of Powell’s clarion call. Nietzsche’s strongest soldier assumed Labour couldn’t be any worse than Heath. But the price of his revenge was 25 per cent inflation, Britain going cap in hand to the IMF, the dead going unburied, and another four decades of tugging our forelocks to Brussels. For all his faults, even Sunak’s record isn’t that bad. 

Of course, a few Tory poasters switching sides will not be the difference between Starmer winning or losing the election. The country is so fed up with the Conservatives that it would take Labour running on a platform of slaughtering kittens, ennobling Paula Vennells, and flogging the NHS to the Saudis for Sunak to even have a sniff of another five years. Like death, taxes, and Piers Morgan, he is inevitable. 

Yet Tories disheartened by Starmer’s imminent arrival should take heart. Heath’s ejection in 1974 paved the way for Margaret Thatcher to become Conservative leader; Labour’s crumbling in the face of the unions brought her to power to deliver the medicine Britain needed. Yes, those Tory MPs who survive their coming encounter with the voters — both of them — will spend the post-election period indulging in an orgiastic carnival of bloodletting and blame-pinning. But hope is never entirely lost.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover