Politics is fundamentally about choices. Cuts v investment, getting Brexit done v coalition of chaos, New Labour v same old Tories. An effective political strategy is, in essence, about defining those choices on your own terms. Next week, the choice in British politics will change. We will have a new prime minister and my old boss will have a new opponent whom he will need to define quickly.
Liz Truss, who is widely expected to win the leadership contest, should not be underestimated. She has, leaving aside the obvious gaffes, exceeded expectations and anyone who becomes prime minister must be treated as an effective political operator.
The nature of leadership campaigns – and I have worked on two – means Truss has had to spend the summer talking to her party’s grassroots. However, as soon as she is in No 10, she will turn to the country and use the levers of power to show she is getting a grip. To voters she remains unknown. “Unsure” is the word voters most associated with her, according to Lord Ashcroft’s most recent survey. That presents a short window for Keir Starmer and his team to exploit.
So, how should my former colleagues define the choice? It must start and end with the economy.
By the time of the next election, the Conservatives will have had four prime ministers and three economic projects: austerity, delivering Brexit and Truss-onomics. The first two were meant to deliver strength, growth and high wages. But instead we have the highest tax burden of 70 years, lowest growth forecasts of the G7 and stagnant wages. We have been ill-equipped to weather the global economic shocks from the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Truss has said her tax cuts will avert recession, but few believe this to be credible.
The Conservatives are losing the argument on the economy and their lead over Labour on the issue has collapsed. Now, during the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, Starmer and the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, must keep a laser-like focus on the issue. They must go after the Conservatives as the party that wrecked the economy, akin to David Cameron and George Osborne’s attacks on the last Labour government. While Truss presides over economic decline, Starmer must promise growth.
Economic mismanagement must be tied into government incompetence, especially with a new prime minister who has staked her reputation on delivery. There is an emerging sense that parts of Britain are no longer working: whether that’s ballooning waiting lists, inadequate childcare or failures to level up. The vacuum over energy has left ministers looking out of touch and out of ideas.
The Conservatives’ brand as the “natural party of government” has been a powerful electorate asset for much of the past century. Now that label is peeling away, Labour should not be timid. It must exude confidence that after years in the wilderness it is ready for government and it must inspire confidence that it is capable of leading.
The fundamentals for the Conservatives over the next two years are unenviable. The economic forecasts are bleak, the leadership contest has exposed deep divisions and by 2024 they will have been in power for 14 years. History has told us that tired, divided governments that have presided over a declining economy struggle to cling on to power.
The ultimate choice at an election is between the status quo and change. Do we give them one more chance or do we give the other lot a shot? Starmer cannot afford the election to be anything other than a campaign for change. He must own that narrative for himself, with a compelling vision for how Britain can thrive under Labour.
Ben Nunn was Keir Starmer’s director of communications from 2017 to 2021