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What could go wrong for Keir Starmer?

The burden of being the frontrunner to be the next prime minister is starting to show.

By Rachel Wearmouth

This time a year ago British politics was in a state of flux as Boris Johnson’s premiership reached its denouement. Conservative leadership candidates were vying for control of the party and Keir Starmer was celebrating having been exonerated by Durham Police over the “Beergate” scandal.

Labour insiders were bullish but by no means convinced the party’s double-digit poll lead was sustainable. Today, however, the party enjoys a 20-point poll lead and the Tories are increasingly resigned to defeat.

Yet far from exuding confidence, many Labour MPs are on edge, adding caveats to every utterance about the next election as if afraid of being arraigned for complacency. Ask about the trio of by-elections on Thursday (20 July), two of which Labour is on course to win, and where you might expect a cheeky grin, shoulders tense up and robot mode is activated. The burden of being a government-in-waiting is palpable.

“We’ve just got to hold our nerve,” one shadow minister remarked as we discussed the potential pitfalls facing Starmer.

The first priority is maintaining Labour’s poll lead on the economy, secured by the party’s reassuring shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves. She and Starmer frustrated left-wingers last year when they adopted the Conservatives’ attack line and promised to shun “magic money tree economics”, even before Liz Truss’s calamitous spell as prime minister.

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Labour strategists suspect that the Tories, whose tax rises Reeves and Starmer have heavily criticised, may be considering substantial giveaways for the months ahead to boost their electoral prospects. “They are entering the ‘ah f*** it’ phase of government,” joked one former Labour adviser.

One source suggested it was wrong, therefore, to assume that Labour would match the Tories’ tax and spending plans. “There could be two fiscal events before the next election and we don’t know what the Tories are planning or what they will put on the ‘never never’, so we don’t want to be left with a poison pill,” they added. Starmer and Reeves are expected to set out in greater detail the “tram lines” the party will stick to soon.

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Alongside the economy, immigration policy has historically been a weak point for Labour. The party rejected the government’s Rwanda deportation plan but strategists recognise that stronger proposals are needed to reassure voters that Labour could control Britain’s borders. They remain tight-lipped about their plans but say Starmer is developing a positive relationship with Edi Rama, Albania’s centre-left prime minister, and crucial individuals in the French president Emmanuel Macron’s team.

[See also: Labour’s fiscal paradox]

One cabinet minister remarked last week that the mood in the Conservative Party was not as funereal as many believed, adding that “pressure” was building on Starmer as the frontrunner to be the next prime minister. They admitted that controversy over immigration has been stoked “in place of what’s missing” from the Conservatives’ offer to voters. Rishi Sunak, they said, would display more “hope and vision” in the months ahead as inflation (hopefully) falls and the party begins to set out electoral priorities, including green jobs, retraining and housing.

While the Tories’ debates about what their policies should be are confined to a small number of people in Westminster, the dynamic is different for Labour. What makes it into the party’s manifesto will be decided by its ruling National Executive Committee, which is tightly controlled by Starmer’s allies, shortly before the campaign period begins.

The consultation, however, is a wider exercise involving trade unions and party members, effectively beginning with the National Policy Forum (NPF) in Nottingham later in July. Negotiations are taking place behind closed doors to avoid rows breaking out in public but divisions over benefit sanctions, the two-child limit on tax credits, workers’ rights, Brexit, electoral reform and rent controls could surface.

Policies voted down at the NPF could resurface as motions at the party’s annual conference in Liverpool in October, when trade union pay disputes may still be continuing. Labour’s strict candidate selection process, through which the left has been marginalised, could trigger factional infighting. Powerful mayors, such as Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester and Sadiq Khan in London, who have championed radical proposals such as rent controls and electoral reform, could also clash with the party leadership.

But as the election draws closer, many around Starmer believe the time for compromise and careful political management has passed and that placating his own party at the potential cost of swing voters’ support is not a risk worth taking. “We should be having more arguments, not less,” said one source.

Another difficult task for Starmer is the long-anticipated reshuffle of his shadow cabinet, which insiders predict will take place after the by-elections. Speculation has been building for months that the Labour leader is planning to move or disempower figures championed by the soft left, such as Angela Rayner, Lisa Nandy, Ed Miliband and Jim McMahon.

This, as much as any skirmishes over policy, is causing jitters. Amid briefing and counter-briefing, it remains unclear what calculation Starmer has finally made on rebalancing the team he is likely to take into government; even committed centrists would argue that demoting Nandy, a former leadership rival, or her allies is fraught with risk. The core Starmer loyalists, such as Wes Streeting, Rachel Reeves and Bridget Phillipson, are expected to be safe.

The arrival of Sue Gray, Starmer’s incoming chief of staff, in the autumn is expected to stabilise the leader’s office should the reshuffle backfire. Her experience in Whitehall will also be invaluable in helping Labour to prepare for government.

The mood in Westminster the week before the summer parliamentary recess feels like the calm before the storm of an election year. When MPs return in September, the battle for power will begin in earnest.

[See also: Does Labour’s soft left have a future?]