Few ever believed Sir Keir Starmer could become PM – an extraordinary set of events changed all of that

Politics

When Sir Keir Starmer became Labour leader in 2020, few ever believed he would become prime minister.

The party was reeling from its worst performance at the ballot box since 1935, riven by internal divisions, under fire over its record of tackling antisemitism and facing a seemingly unassailable Boris Johnson atop an 80-seat majority.

Sir Keir was billed as the Neil Kinnock of 21st-century Labour: the man who would do the hard yards of rehabilitation to get Labour back into the running for whoever came next.

But an extraordinary set of events changed all of that: a global COVID pandemic, the largely self-inflicted collapse of the Johnson administration, and the debacle of Liz Truss’s 44 days in office.

All the political capital won at the ballot box in 2019 has long been spent, and the Sunak government is now in huge deficit.

Labour, ahead in the polls for the past 15 months, is now 28 points ahead, according to latest YouGov polling. Rishi Sunak may have calmed the chaos. But he isn’t closing the gap.

The Tories are in despair. As one former cabinet minister ruefully remarked to me: “Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them, and we are f*****.”

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Sir Keir, who said back in 2020 when he became Labour leader that he had a mountain to climb to turn things around before the next general election in 2024, now has the summit in sight.

Gifted the climbing kit by his political adversaries, he now wants to use the rest of this year to build his own case with voters who might have fallen out of love with the Conservatives but are still unsure about him.

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‘Tide is turning on SNP and Tories’

‘Five missions’ to answer the big question from voters

Recent polling suggests that when voters are asked what Sir Keir’s Labour stand for, the most common answer is “don’t know”.

But today, Sir Keir is aiming to begin to answer that question during a major speech in Manchester.

He will outline the five “missions” that will form the backbone of his 2024 manifesto. His themes are the economy, climate change, the NHS, skills, and law and order.

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The actual policies are being closely guarded – but senior Labour sources are promising that Sir Keir will offer up measurable goals and timelines for achieving those around economic growth and climate change today.

Five point plans and pledge cards are nothing new. At the beginning of the year, Rishi Sunak set out his five promises to voters for the remainder of his term in office – to grow the economy in 2023, halve inflation, cut debt, stop small boats, and cut NHS waiting lists.

In the run up to the 1997 general election, Tony Blair had a pledge card with five very specific policies he would deliver: from cutting cut class sizes to 30 to promising not to raise income tax rates.

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‘More about blue-sky thinking than real-life retail politics’

But this speech is not about that, say senior Labour sources. Sir Keir’s missions will be different to specific pledges. “They are about long-term objectives,” a senior Labour figure said.

“They will be the chapters in the manifesto.

“We’ll then have specific pledges about how we deliver the mission.”

If the mission is, say, a commitment to high economic growth, the pledges that will follow set out how to accomplish that mission.

So today will be more about blue-sky thinking than real-life retail politics. Those around Sir Keir insist that this is not a knee-jerk reaction to Mr Sunak’s own mission statement for the next 18 months – also five points – but rather a framework for governing.

It is, if you like, going back to his theme of ending “sticking plaster politics” and trying to expand on what he means when he talks about a Labour government embarking on a “decade of national renewal”.

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Big thoughts clash with pressing needs

But Labour politicians who are canvassing on doorsteps are hearing about the very real problems of a monthly pay packet that won’t cover the bills, being unable to see a doctor, or being affected by anti-social behaviour. Big thoughts are perhaps not what they want when dealing with pressing needs.

Today is being billed by the Labour leader’s team as a key staging post on Labour’s journey to get voters to really look at the party again. To win the next general election, Labour will need a big chunk of Tory and SNP voters to switch back.

“We can’t afford to let government lose, we need to win,” is how one candidate put it to me – and they are looking to Sir Keir to give them real policies to sell on the doorstep.

That Sir Keir is even in this position should be considered a victory of sorts. Having a serious shot at government was a pipedream rather than a real prospect when he won the Labour leadership race back in 2020, and his mission speech is a key staging post in that journey as the Labour leader sets out his stall.

Sir Keir might be in ascendancy but he knows he still has to seal the deal – and how these missions land could prove crucial.

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