Rishi Sunak Has Thrown Down A Challenge To Keir Starmer – Can He Pick It Up In Liverpool?

Labour's annual conference is the party's leader's big chance to convince voters he should be PM.
Keir Starmer of the Labour party and Rishi Sunak of the Tory party
Keir Starmer of the Labour party and Rishi Sunak of the Tory party
Maddie Abuyuan / HuffPost; Belinda Jiao / Stringer via Getty Images; Anthony Devlin / Getty Images

By a strange quirk of fate, Labour’s party conference comes after the Conservatives’ one this year.

The party’s annual get-together is taking place at the ACC in Liverpool but, due to a prior booking, the venue could not accommodate them in their traditional slot at the end of September.

As a result, the conference is kicking off this weekend instead. It means that, for the first time in years, it will be staged after the Tories’ own jamboree.

This provides Keir Starmer with an opportunity as well as a challenge.

It means him and his party will have the last word, allowing them to leave a lasting impression on voters. But this is only an advantage if the conference is a triumph. If it’s underwhelming, or a disaster, it will give the electorate cause to wonder whether Labour really is ready for power after all.

In practical terms, it also means Starmer’s keynote speech remains a work in progress.

Although the bulk of his address was locked down more than a week ago, HuffPost UK has been told it is still being “refined”, partly to allow the Labour leader to respond to Rishi Sunak’s own speech to the Tory faithful last week.

Rishi Sunak delivers his keynote speech at last week's Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
Rishi Sunak delivers his keynote speech at last week's Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

Rather implausibly after 13 years of Conservative government, the prime minister tried to paint himself as the “change” candidate at the next election.

He said he was different from other politicians in that he was prepared to take “long-term decision” rather than seek immediate positive headlines.

To that end, he announced the scrapping of the HS2 line to Manchester, the end of A-levels and a gradual ban on smoking which means no one who is 14 now will be able to legally buy cigarettes when they are older.

A former Tory cabinet minister said: “We’ve played our cards – let’s see what happens next week.”

Unfortunately for Sunak, however, the Tory conference will also be remembered for a series of bizarre moments which made them look like anything but a serious party of government.

A senior Labour insider said: “They are a total mess and a shambles but it doesn’t mean that we can be complacent or relaxed about that.

“Him pitching himself as representing change is obviously nonsense but it’s probably the only option open to him.

“The problem he’s got, though, is that every time he says it’s time for change a lot of people will nod and say ‘it is, so fuck off’.

“The challenge for us is to show that change can only happen under Labour, which is difficult when there isn’t a lot of money and people are sceptical about politicians. We need to show that we can offer change they can believe in and will improve the country.”

One Starmer ally told HuffPost UK that the purpose of the party conference is to answer the question: “If not the Tories, why Labour?”

“Keir’s strategy since becoming leader has been about restoring credibility, rebuilding the party and setting out our stall as to what we would do in government,” they said.

“Conference will be about setting out ‘the vision’, which is the difference that a Labour government will make.

Rather than what you saw with Sunak, you’ll hear a bit more about what Labour have done in the past. If you look at the Labour governments of 1945, 1963 and 1997, they rebuilt the country.

“So a lot of what he says will be about rebuilding a country that feels like it doesn’t work any more. We can’t promise to turn on the spending taps straight away, so it will be about the necessity of economic growth and who it should work for.”

Labour’s conference preparations were given the perfect boost by the party’s stunning victory in Thursday’s Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election.

The 20% swing away from the SNP means Labour are very much on course to win at least 20 – and possibly many more – Scottish seats next year. That in turn means the party does not need to win quite as many in England to guarantee a Labour government.

Keir Starmer with Michael Shanks, the new MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West.
Keir Starmer with Michael Shanks, the new MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West.
Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images

Nevertheless, the party knows the next election is far from a done deal.

“Lots of people are undecided and the Tories are using that to say it’s all up in the air,” said a source in Starmer’s office. “There is still a lot of indecision, but these people have turned away from the Tories and are ready to be convinced by Labour.

“When you see the polling stuff on Keir and Labour, a big chunk will say ‘I don’t know much about them’. What it means is that as we go into the last year of this parliament, this is the opportunity to turn that around.”

The task of convincing an uncertain electorate will be the central aim of the Labour conference.

By this time next week, we should have a clearer idea of whether the party has been successful.


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