Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

This is Starmer’s chance

He could be the next Harold Wilson

“There is no more dangerous illusion than the comfortable doctrine that the world owes us a living.” That could have been said by any of the contenders for the Tory leadership in the last week. They all have their own prescriptions for solving problems, but they at least agree there is a problem. In the event, none of them did say it. It was Harold Wilson who said it, in his 1963 conference speech.

That speech was the start of Wilson becoming Wilson. He became Leader of the Opposition at a time when Labour was divided, between right and left. Indeed Wilson won partly because there were further divisions within Labour’s right wing. He was seen as devious and underhanded. This speech was his breakthrough moment. Just as Macmillan’s Tories were starting to crumble, Wilson was rising. 

How do the Tories avoid another Alec Douglas-Hume?

Every time they win, the Tories get excited that it’s the 1980s again. But at this stage, they are surely cautious about reliving the period of government in the 1950s that Wilson brought to a miserable halt when he won in 1964. 

Churchill was elected to clear out the exhausted Labour party in 1951 and governed with aristocratic ease (and indifference) for five years. In 1955 he gave way to Eden, who had waited and waited, only to suffer two years of disgrace and distress before surrendering the premiership to Macmillan. SuperMac wasn’t terribly honest, and didn’t always work that hard, but he had a charm (and a rising economic tide) that won him a big majority. Eventually, the scandals piled up and toppled him like a Jenga tower. He was replaced with Alex Douglas-Hume, who lost the election a year afterwards.

Sound familiar? We had Cameron and his competent post-Labour changes. We had May and her Edenite turbulence (despite her upstanding personal character). Now we have had our Macmillan complete with a majority and dishonest charm. What next? How do the Tories avoid another Alec Douglas-Hume?

The trouble is, whoever they pick, the Tories have given Keir Starmer his election strategy on a plate. The new attack ad from Labour cleverly cuts together all the ways Tory leadership hopefuls have disowned the government’s record. 

Thus the field is open for Labour to play the Wilsonian strategy. There is no room for complacency, Starmer can say. Even the Tories don’t trust themselves. We cannot afford another lost decade. That was the charge that Wilson laid at the Tories door in the 1960s — and indeed, Rachel Reeves was using that rhetoric earlier this year

It’s 1963 all over again. The Tories look tired

The way Wilson talked in that 1963 speech, he could have been Dominic Cummings. “We must produce more scientists … we must make more intelligent use of them.” What Wilson was really selling was optimism, futurism. He was exhorting his audience to accept the wonders of new technology, not to scowl gloomily and pretend they were not there. This isn’t about what’s real — this government has created ARIA after all. It’s about presentation and priorities. The debates have felt too much like reheating cabinet arguments about tax rates, without enough fresh ideas for ways the Tories will encourage growth, productivity, invention and innovation. 

The Tory focus right now is on trying not to rock the ship. Rather than make the Net Zero target a means of inspiring people, it’s being juggled as either too expensive, or important but difficult to reach, or something we will have to drop temporarily. There’s too much at stake for this flip-flopping. If the Tories can’t find a plan that has something to sell — some sense of aspiration for a brighter future for the country — Labour will continue to move in on that ground.

Stories of the end of Thatcher have been haunting political commentary since Sunak resigned. That’s not the right analogy. It’s 1963 all over again. The Tories look tired. Labour’s leader is starting to reposition himself. The next election is suddenly looking like one of hope versus despair, energy versus exhaustion. 

“We care deeply about the future of Britain,” Wilson said, and so we need to “use all the latent and undeveloped skills and energy of our people”. The Tories must find some grounds for optimism.

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