You couldn’t open Twitter on Sunday without seeing the name – Tony Blair. Sunday marked 25 years since New Labour trounced John Major’s broken Conservative Party at the 1997 General Election. Mr Blair handed the Tories – riddled with sleaze and incompetence – their worst drubbing since 1906.
Less than a year before, the die was cast when Labour walloped the Tories in the 1996 local elections. Labour took 45 per cent of the vote that day, to the 28 per cent who voted Conservative.
Hailing the results, Mr Blair remarked: “Many of the people voting for us were coming straight from the Conservatives to Labour in a way they have not done before.”
Recent events have seen people draw parallels between Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and the broken Major regime. The Tories again appear mired in sleaze after a long spell in No.10.
There’s Partygate, the Owen Patterson scandal and, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, senior MP Neil Parish forced to quit after being outed for watching porn. He wasn’t – he insisted – looking for S&M on his smartphone but a “Class Dominator” tractor.
Yet on the eve of the most critical local elections for some time, with the Tories in a mess, is Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour at all close to becoming the lean, mean election-winning machine that was New Labour?
Tony himself must think something’s up as he quite publicly gave Sir Keir his backing in campaign messages this weekend. But he would be among the first to admit – privately – that Labour may just have its work cut out.
Yesterday’s BBC Today interview with Sir Keir showed how far he still has to go. Not only was it dull, the Labour leader struggled on everything from tax to energy policy and defence.
And critically, while using most of the Blair playbook, Sir Keir is lacking the key ingredient – optimism.
Tomorrow’s elections will be critical for the Tory party but they are just as pivotal for Sir Keir – to assess the progress Labour is making.
He has put a very cautious marker down – talking of the need to show “gains” – and it could well take Wandsworth and Barnet in London.
But the key test for Labour tomorrow will be how it fares in the North, the Red Wall that handed Boris Johnson his huge general election mandate on a night in 2019 – places such as Sunderland and the Amber Valley.
If they do then the Conservatives will be rightly worried. Many hope it’s the jolt the government needs to get its house in order again.
The cost of living crisis is another monumental challenge for a No10 operation blindsided by the most devastating pandemic for a generation. But talk to business leaders and the reviews are damning.
Boris’ dreadful appearance on Good Morning Britain yesterday was no surprise. One executive told me this weekend: “Boris is useless so I don’t care if he goes, and the Chancellor is putting Corporation Tax up to 26 per cent. They’re a joke.”
Companies are already busy preparing their defences for when government blames them for the huge inflation coming through the system. “This lot always want to blame someone else and we know they’ll come for us,” one director said.
And then there’s Brexit. As well as the very public queues gridlocking Kent, business leaders insist Britain’s departure from the EU is making inflation here far worse than on the Continent because of the acute labour shortage.
Salaries are going up like topsy to plug vacancies as migrants stay home and late 50 year-old Brits shaken by Covid opt for early retirement.
Separately, any threat to trigger Article 16 over the Northern Ireland Protocol just delays much-needed investment in the Province.
“But of course you can’t complain about Brexit,” one exec said. “Especially if you want to keep a government contract.”
It’s a perfect scenario for Labour – if it can get its act together.
For now there are few notable policies to rally around and of course Brexit remains a problem for Sir Keir – given his one-time desire for a Second Referendum.
He has since sworn that as PM he won’t even seek a customs union with the EU but that vow will come under intense scrutiny, not least given the beginnings of an Electoral Pact with the ‘rejoiners’ – the Lib Dems.
Tomorrow we’ll see if the public really are ready to make their voice heard about the Tory Government.
And we’ll find out if they believe Labour is ready to take over.