So, conference season is drawing to a close. The Conservatives have had a dispiriting conference, with a sense of doom about a seemingly inevitable election defeat, and more interest in who will replace the PM as next leader, of an almost ungovernable party, than what policies might be introduced in the last months of this government.
The party is increasingly divided into factions and the future looks grim in opposition for at least a decade.
Meantime, the Labour Party is trying to contain its enthusiasm, to not appear arrogant or assume too much before what seems like an inevitable election win.
A capable leader who looks ready for power, an apparently strong shadow cabinet now established in their roles and briefs, a particularly strong Shadow Chancellor, a bruiser of a deputy leader, an experienced shadow home secretary and some very bright younger members of the cabinet tipped for a quick rise up the ranks once in government.
The left has been put firmly back in its box, at least for now, while the Conservative right is out of the box and out there, wrecking any hopes of the Conservatives holding the middle ground which seems destined to swing to Labour.
Yes, it’s October 1995 again!
Remember that strange period? When the results of the next election seemed inevitable, and all we had to do was wait…and wait…..and wait…almost a year and half as it turned out. The country politically seemed to stand still as everyone waited for an election to be called and get the inevitable over and done with, so Labour could govern and the Conservatives tear themselves apart for a while in opposition, working out what they really stood for.
Of course, there are vast differences between October 95 and October 23. Keir Starmer is no Tony Blair, as we know, the economy that Starmer and his team are set to inherit is in a parlous state, and whereas Blair wanted to put the UK at the heart of Europe, the most that can be hoped for in the next 10 years is some kind of loose associate arrangement, a Norway Minus.
But for Brown, read Reeves, for Prescott, read Rayner, for Straw, read Cooper. A talented team, apparently much stronger than the residue of Conservative cabinet members who have remained to see out the last 15 months and position themselves for leadership in opposition.
There is one other obvious parallel, and learning from 1995/96. The Conservatives are doing a great job of tearing themselves apart. They will lose the election, and heavily, not because there is a groundswell of desire for social democracy, but because the electorate is fed up with them, the absence of leadership, the continuous in-fighting, the never-ending string of scandals (anyone remember the Hamiltons in 1997?).
The best thing Starmer can do is to set out a reasonably vague but positive agenda for change, without committing himself or his team to too much. Let the Conservatives attack him personally, rather than his policies, and the Conservatives will simply show themselves to be the Nasty Party that they are.
Be strategic – some nice, high-level pillars or “missions” with not too much detail, because, frankly, to quote a senior civil service friend of mine, “the country’s broke”, so there won’t be much money to pay for innovative policies at the moment. And you won’t know just how bad it is until you get into power and your civil servants can have frank conversations with you about how bad things are.
All of this just seems, well, inevitable. We waited through the end of 1995, all 1996, early 1997 for an election to be called, whose result by then surprised no one. There is every indication that, like John Major, Rishi Sunak will wait until the last possible moment to dissolve parliament (December 2024) in the desperate hope that some scandal might derail the Labour leader and party.
The year 2024 looks set to be truly dispiriting, with more policies on immigration to placate the right (and potential Reform voters), more battles with doctors, more anti-tofu eating, anti-wokerati social policies. And all Starmer has to do is to sound like a competent future prime minister, and make sure that his cabinet stays on message.
That is all pretty boring stuff to be honest, because it feels like an already written script that the actors just need to get through until January 2025.
Two things I think remain fascinating.
At the moment the assumption is that the swing will be from the Conservatives straight to Labour, not the LibDems. That is probably correct, because Starmer has positioned himself to win centrist Conservative voters, and because Ed Davey is no Paddy Ashdown.
Ashdown was a leader, an outstanding debater on behalf of Liberal Democracy and would surely have been PM had he led one of the two main parties. It was perhaps he, more than his party, that was successful in securing a strong election result in 1997.
The other is what on earth is going to happen to the Conservatives post January 2025.
If the current system of choosing leaders is retained, then it is inevitable that the most right-wing of the final two candidates will become leader. Badenoch may be acceptable, but imagine if Braverman becomes party leader. The Conservatives have only themselves to blame for sticking to a leadership election system that gave them Liz Truss.
The Conservatives have a habit of finding their way back to power, but if they see the threat coming from the further-still right, rather than the centre, then they may lose the central ground altogether.
Corn Law Reform split the old Tory party in the 19th century and created the modern Conservative party. I secretly hope that the same might happen again, that what remains of the old One Nation Conservatives (whom many of us at Radix respect) will reform themselves into a separate grouping and let the “looney right” go their own way.
There is space for another party, as was the case with the SDP in the early 80s, or indeed – one suspects – an open LibDem door….