It might seem odd to wonder what dangers lurk in Sir Keir Starmer’s future as the Tory Party lies prostrate and quivering on the floor. But there is a reason people don’t rush to buy houses at the scene of gruesome murders.
The wreckage of the Liz Truss premiership has seemingly made the prospect of the Labour Party being welcomed back into power at the next election all but inevitable. Luckily for a man who has made no secret of his admiration for Harold Wilson, it has also removed the danger that, as in 1964 and 1974, an exhausted Tory Government would minimise its losses by running the economy hot for several years, leaving it to others to make the difficult decisions to bring inflation under control and protect the value of the pound.
Instead, the unpleasant task of identifying the necessary tax rises and public spending cuts falls to this week’s Chancellor, with the new prime minister due to only have a couple of days to preview the contents of Jeremy Hunt’s Halloween statement.
Given that Truss has recently flirted with cuts to working age benefits, pensions, and defence spending only to be forced to retreat, under fire from her own backbenchers, there is a real danger that the Tories will not be able to pass sufficient deficit-cutting measures by themselves. It would be astonishing, given the size of their majority at the last election. But it wouldn’t be more surprising than other recent events. Labour may find itself in the uncomfortable position of being asked by the government to agree a cross-party package of measures to assuage the markets, lest the mass sell-offs of sterling and gilts resume.
If however the Tories can somehow pull themselves together then the odd and self-defeating ways they will make the required £30bn in savings will create its own problems. Assuming that Tory MPs don’t have the stomach for yet another u-turn on increasing national insurance, we shouldn’t expect anything efficient or coherent from a set of measures developed in a rush to end a panic.
This will almost certainly exacerbate the lack of investment that has left Britain’s public services with crumbling infrastructure and driven staff vacancies to record highs. Therefore, despite the tax burden being the highest since 1950, Labour will be forced to prepare to increase taxes higher to stop, let alone reverse, the more than decade-long decline in the quality of public services.
Likewise with a shouting match between the outgoing Prime Minister and her then Home Secretary over relaxing visa rules being followed by Liz Truss chasing after her despairing senior whips as three dozen Tory MPs voted against fracking, no one should anticipate that a demoralised and paranoid Tory Party will have intellectual bandwidth or political courage to pursue the supply-side reforms necessary to increase capacity and productivity.
Here again, Labour may find themselves being asked by the government to help them pass controversial legislation in the face of opposition from Tory backbenchers. But even if they avoid such uncomfortable collaborations, they will have to develop clear ideas about how they will kickstart economic growth in Britain following the dual shocks of the Brexit psychodrama and the pandemic.
Polling suggests that Labour has more than enough support to spare to tell the public some hard truths. But they will be well-aware that even with a financial crisis and significant leads in the polls, David Cameron failed to seal the deal against Gordon Brown. The threat of economic moderation being cast aside was enough to spook swing voters against him. The chaos of the past 44 days will force Starmer to set aside the schemes of socialists and the dreams of liberals, and instead do the work the Tories have ignored.