01/03/2021 22:16 GMT | Updated 02/03/2021 06:49 GMT

Will 2021 Be A Year Of Pyrrhic Victories For Keir Starmer?

As the Labour leader prepares for his first Budget face-off against Rishi Sunak, tax and other issues are circling.

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The first day of spring often prompts thoughts of a fresh start, of a page being turned, of slow progress suddenly getting noticed. And after a few weeks of discontent about his leadership, Keir Starmer may have hoped that March 1 would mark a change for the better.

Well, today showed life is never that simple or straightforward when you’re in Opposition, particularly a Labour Opposition. While Starmer wanted to focus on the government’s own weaknesses, not least the holes and delays in the hotel quarantine scheme amid the detection of a new Brazil variant of the Covid virus, for his party there were plenty of other distractions.

The day started with what looked on the face of it like a legal victory. In the High Court, the wonderfully named Mrs Justice Tipples rejected an application by former official Emilie Oldknow to force the party to identify those it believed had leaked the explosive anti-Semitism report last year.

Oldknow was ordered to pay the party’s court costs, as well as those incurred by lawyers for Unite the union in its written submissions on the case. And in fact the big winners today were the five unnamed individuals represented by Unite, which had claimed the party had tried to “wash its hands” of them by failing to actively contest the disclosure order.

The detail of the case is all HERE, but the upshot is that what looked like a tactical victory for Labour could end up causing it yet more pain in the courts and in costs. People like Oldknow who believe they were defamed by the leak may now sue the party itself, rather than the five individuals. Don’t forget Labour has already spent a fortune on payouts to former staffers in the wake of the Corbyn-led party’s response to the Panorama documentary.

The mood in Labour HQ may not have been lightened either by a new Deltapoll showing that Boris Johnson’s personal ratings had overtaken Starmer’s for the first time since last May. The Labour leader’s ratings (which have outperformed those of his party) are at their lowest level since he took over the job.

The “vaccine bounce” for Johnson has been seen in other polls too. Although Labour ought to win hundreds of council seats this May in local elections, and retain its big city mayoralties easily, the theme of Pyrrhic victories could continue if the party continues to trail in the national polls.

The Budget this week will be the main event on Wednesday, but you can bet that beforehand Johnson will have tried to rough up Starmer with yet more “flip flop” and “Captain Hindsight” jibes. To add to the pressure, he’s facing his own debut on a major fiscal event at the despatch box (because parliamentary convention means that it’s the leader of the Opposition who replies to a Budget, not the shadow chancellor).

Yet the flip-flopping-wibbly-wobbler charges being levelled at Starmer by the PM will surely be emboldened by Labour’s stance of opposing all and any tax rises “right now”. As I wrote last week, Labour has always kept open the option of supporting corporation tax hikes later in the cycle, but you can bet Rishi Sunak will try to claim Starmer just changes with the wind. The Budget will certainly be a tempting glimpse of future Sunak-Starmer face-offs in the post-Johnson era.

If the Guardian is right and Labour is now preparing to back the government over any freezing of personal allowances, that doesn’t quite sound like “no tax rises right now”. A huge caveat here of course is that Oppositions never usually vote for a government Budget, and lots of the measures may not be “right now” but kick in next year or the year after. 

Yet that won’t stop the Tories saying that, as on Covid, Starmer has criticised tax rises then later supports the idea. Call it a variation on the theme of saying he is supportive at first, then gripes later. I’m amazed the Conservatives haven’t yet tried mocked up posters of ‘Starmer Chameleon’, though maybe they can’t get the music rights from Culture Club (I know Labour once tried ’Cameron Chameleon’ but it obviously doesn’t scan as well).

There was one other hint of fresh trouble down the line, this time on Europe. In a Q&A after a speech at Bloomberg, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds was making sound points about the need for the overdue memorandum of understanding between the UK and EU on financial services. She then uttered these words: “Would we be seeking to immediately renegotiate this deal? No, we’ve got to make the current deal work.”

That adverb “immediately” raised eyebrows within and without the Labour party. Was the implicit signal that Labour in power would renegotiate the Brexit deal at a later stage, even if not straight away after it got into office? Would renegotiation mean a new customs union Starmer has long supported (good for trade but sure to be seen as letting Brussels set the rules)? I’m told the party would not be seeking to renegotiate and would try and make the current deal work, but you can bet Tory campaigns HQ has filed that one away for Blue Wall seats.

There is some hope for Starmer that actually his “don’t mention the war” approach to Brexit may pay off. New research (highlighted by Sunder Katwala) shows that Leave and Remain identities are slowly waning among voters, though a quarter of people still use the labels as their primary political label).

Yet both Sunak and Johnson will argue that Starmer can run but he can’t hide from the Brexit issue. And even if that’s another thing Labour won’t talk about “right now”, it will be forced to in 2024.