The Tories are about to try to reinvent themselves again. Labour needs a plan to stop them succeeding

by David Talbot

Another summer, another Conservative Party leadership contest. Its eventual successor will be crowned the fourth Conservative Prime Minister in six years, no less, which must come close to the party’s 2015 definition of “chaos”. For the Labour Party, after years of tearing itself apart, and four inglorious general election defeats, it must feel that things can indeed only get better. It does, though, have serious lessons to learn from when it allowed the now felled Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to ascend to Downing Street without so much as a whimper of dissent only three years ago.

Boris Johnson was the heir apparent as soon as he comfortably topped the first ballot amongst Conservative MPs in mid-June 2019. Indeed, fellow candidates for the leadership uniformly declared that there ‘must not be a coronation’. It came as no surprise, therefore, when Johnson did indeed become Prime Minister the following month.

Rather than being greeted by a barrage of hostility, the Labour Party barely seemed to register the change of Prime Minister. Unbelievably, it took over 24 hours for Labour to acknowledge Boris Johnson’s new government at all. A tired and rather hackneyed press release was eventually sent at 5pm the following evening tying Boris Johnson to Donald Trump, and macabrely calling for an early general election.

It was stunningly complacent. The Labour Party appeared utterly becalmed at the prospect of Prime Minister Boris Johnson; so much so that Jeremy Corbyn did not hold a single strategy meeting on how his party would tackle the Prime Minister until after the summer recess.

This was, though, systematic of Corbyn’s Labour at the time. The Conservative Party had spent the previous two and a half years learning the harsh lessons from the 2017 election. Labour had, however, convinced itself of its righteousness and believed all it had to do was repeat the same tactics it had employed last time. It was obvious that whilst Labour thought nothing had changed, everything had. Johnson was an incoming Prime Minister hellbent on an early general election, with a clear strategy, a united team, and a heaving war chest.

Labour made a similar, though not identical, mistake when David Cameron became the fresh-faced Conservative leader in 2005. In the ancient days of the last Labour government, the party agonised over whether its new foe was “a chameleon”, a Thatcherite, an empty PR suit or a toff.

The early throes of Sir Keir Starmer’s response to Johnson’s demise has, at last, been encouraging. Labour rightly allowed the Conservatives to just get on with destroying their own and it has deftly closed long-telegraphed Conservatives’ attacks. In the past week, Labour has ruled out a coalition with the SNP, pledged to ‘make Brexit work’ and – crucially – not to take the country back into the EU.

With the Conservatives embarking on a second summer leadership contest in three years, Labour must now use its time wisely. Starmer began to sketch the outlines of Labour’s approach in Johnson’s immediate demise; 12 years of Conservative failure, and a clear grasp of the ‘time for change’ mantle. The former an understanding that Johnson successfully portrayed his government as ‘new’, and the latter a hint that Labour will begin to flesh out its vision for its ‘two-terms’ strategy.

Nobody but the most Conservative of clairvoyants can predict the outcome of this latest leadership election. There will seemingly be a cast of thousands running, for one. But the Conservative Party will surely use it as firebreak with the chaotic Johnson administration. Labour must have a coherent plan and strategy in place to meet any and all eventualities.

David Talbot is a political consultant

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