Could this summer be the start of bitter political infighting?

by Edward Emerson, Account Executive

As Parliament rises, both major parties face the potential of a summer of bitter infighting.

First to Labour, which should be riding high after victory in the Batley-and-Spen by-election this month. The consensus across the party is that leader Sir Keir Starmer has bought himself breathing space, and little more. Fights over the party‚Äôs future direction threaten to overshadow any joy from its narrow victory. Starmer is under pressure to reinvigorate his leadership by appeasing either the party’s Corbynite wing, whose policies he promised to maintain during his leadership campaign, or his more natural allies in the centre of the party. His recent support for the expulsion of four hard left groups gives an indication of his thinking; but risks fracturing the party just as the Government faces internal issues of its own.

Prior to Batley-and-Spen, there were murmurings of a leadership challenge. Deputy leader Angela Rayner seemed, in Westminster speak, ‘on manoeuvres’. The loss of the Hartlepool by-election in May saw the party’s two wings instantly turn on each other. Starmer tried to demote his deputy only to be held ransom by her supporters. A ‘U-turn’ and an attempt to brand the fiasco as a promotion fooled no one. These tensions, running from the top of the party to the conference floor in September, are not going away.

Starmer’s path forward seems to rest on the two competing factions’ fears of each other. Neither wants to trigger a leadership election that the other side might win. Starmer can use this to his advantage and give himself time to strike his own allegiances. His future lies in charting a new path.

Labour needs an agenda that captures the imagination; surely that’s the strength of opposition? The freedom to put forward new ideas and set the agenda for public conversation. In politics, narrative can be incredibly powerful and Labour should be looking to set its own, rather than rehashing old talking points. As an example, the recent ‘Buy British’ policy seems nothing but a reaction to increased Tory nationalism.

The Conservative party too faces a dangerous summer ahead. Rebellions over lockdowns, foreign aid, and more have damaged the appearance of an impenetrable majority. Instead the party now looks more at risk of creaking under its own weight. The Prime Minister’s recent levelling up speech was notably light on firm policy, as he seeks to balance fears of southern ‘shire’ Tories over planning reforms and HS2 with the urgings of ‘red wall’ MPs in the north to carry on with his agenda. Like Starmer, he risks an unappealing compromise that pleases no one.

Elsewhere, the most worrying news for the Prime Minister this week might not be his record low personal approval ratings but reports of continued argument over the contents of the Spending Review this Autumn. Johnson, a Prime Minister who loves to make bold spending pledges, is faced with a Chancellor who often has to find the money and has already pledged a tough Review.

Johnson is learning that he cannot please everyone all of the time. And if Starmer should be worried about his deputy, then perhaps Johnson should also be wary of the second-most senior figure in his party. This week, Chancellor Rishi Sunak pushed back on a new tax to fund the Prime Minister’s social care plans, preferring to settle on a rise to National Insurance.

Johnson must find a balance with his party and with Sunak, because most dangerously of all this summer he risks alienating his Chancellor and undermining the Number 10/Number 11 relationship upon which all British Prime Ministers depend.

Post-COVID, with public appetite high for renewal, both parties have something to prove this summer; but will they be able to prevent infighting from scuppering their plans?

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Edward Emerson

Account Executive