Kuenssberg: What could possibly go wrong for Keir Starmer? A lot, actually

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By Laura Kuenssberg
Presenter, Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg

Keir Starmer’s success was sketched across the map of England at the local elections last week.

The Labour leadership is bouncing from nabbing another of the Tories’ MPs, Natalie Elphicke – and polling since the council results puts him further ahead than ever.

What could possibly go wrong for him?

A lot, actually. The general election is still months away and there are plenty of potential pitfalls between Starmer and the shiny black door of No 10.

Don’t get complacent

First, conversations across the Labour Party suggest the danger of taking victory for granted – being complacent – is the number one risk.

A shadow minister warns: “People sometimes act as if it’s already happened… not realising the scale of effort required to do that.”

A source tells me holiday was cancelled at Labour HQ in December, until July, with all staff expected to be on standby for a general election. There’s no taking it easy now: a similar edict is in place from September to December.

“We have to keep our discipline and keep on our message,” says another insider.

That discipline is important in avoiding the kind of public sparring between colleagues that was all too common in the bruising Corbyn era, and which the public doesn’t like. It’s important in avoiding stray comments that would give opponents ammo to attack – just look at how the Conservatives played with Labour’s wavering over its now retired vow to spend £28bn a year on the economy going green.

But it’s also important because if a Labour victory is hammered into people’s expectations, that could affect how the election campaign is fought.

“If everyone thinks we are getting a thumping great majority, you end up with the campaign being a referendum on Labour,” one source says. Instead, “we want it to be about the threat of five more years of the Tories”.

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Another senior figure tells me: “What you hear is that people think they are voting Labour because they don’t want the Tories – rather than enthusiastically voting for us.”

The party would love there to be more excitement about them. But some insiders want the focus to stay on the Conservatives, who are struggling, and a choice between the two big parties.

With that in mind, Labour was only too happy for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to claim that the local election results suggested the country was on course for a hung parliament. They were pleased for the public to be reminded that a Labour victory is not a foregone conclusion.

Don’t get rattled

Second, while the Tories have been stuck in the doldrums in the polls for months, Labour cannot predict or control much of what happens before the election.

On 6 October last year, the world didn’t know what was about to happen in Israel.

The shocking events of 7 October and the intense conflict since then has unsettled many in the Labour Party. The local elections confirmed the leadership’s attitude to war in Gaza affected votes in some areas, and unhappiness over foreign policy feels something of a proxy for general grumpiness on the left.

There is just no telling what other events could provoke further disagreement, or what unexpected events could shift the polls.

The better economic news of the last few days also helps the Conservatives to make their planned argument – that the country has turned a corner, and that Labour would put that at risk. And of course the Conservatives are looking for any Labour vulnerabilities to push.

On this week’s show are the Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron and Labour MP Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow paymaster generalThe actor Dominic West also joins the show to talk about his new West End showWatch live on BBC One and iPlayer from 09:00 BST on SundayFollow latest updates in text and video on the BBC News website from 08:30Viewers can send questions or comments to @bbclaurak on x or instagram and email kuenssberg@bbc.co.uk

Tory sources point to Labour’s position on immigration, cancelling the government’s Rwanda plan. They’ll likely put pressure on Labour over the enhanced relationship it wants with the EU. Then there’s Labour’s plan for extra rights in the workplace, what Conservatives have dubbed “French-style union laws” – another pressure point.

There is no question that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is a very different beast to Jeremy Corbyn’s tribe as they went into the last general election. But how able are they to shrug off Conservative attacks?

“We can rattle them quite easily,” a Conservative source suggests, pointing to pressure they believe led to Labour ditching its £28bn commitment.

A Labour figure says Starmer’s team needs to avoid “being distracted by the madness”. Sometimes, “they know it’s a trap, but they feel they have no option but walk into it anyway”.

Politics is about how able you are to defend yourself, as well as how sharply you can attack.

Don’t stretch too far

Last, Keir Starmer faces a classic political conundrum.

To win, it helps if you look like a winner – but overstretch yourself, and it could all go wrong.

Not every eager young staffer in Labour these days was born when, in 1992, Neil Kinnock’s Sheffield rally showed him prematurely triumphant, with all the crashing disappointment that followed. But the memory is present in plenty of Labour minds (Kinnock, incidentally, warned on BBC Radio 4’s The Week in Westminster that voters are not fully convinced by Starmer and his party).

Even Starmer’s most loyal lieutenants acknowledge privately that he is unlikely to be a politician with razzle and dazzle. But he has changed since he became leader of a battered party in 2020. One Starmer ally says he is “definitely showing that confidence – and he’s earned it – he has gone through some really, really difficult stuff for the party, he’s grafted it and worked it up”.

As the party’s reaction to the second defection in as many weeks suggested, there is a fine line to walk between breeding success and too much swagger. Some of his MPs’ reactions to this week’s defection of Natalie Elphicke – not just a Conservative, but from the Conservative right – highlighted that risk.

Defecting MP Natalie Elphicke : Tories under Sunak have broken many election promises

Sure, they want to appeal to what Starmer repeatedly described as “all reasonable people”. But for some of his own gang, Elphicke does not fall into that category.

One senior figure told me: “With the over excitement of the scale of a win there might be a strategic error of going for the stretch of the Tories we can pull over, rather than protecting what we already have.”

Yes, to pull off a victory Labour has to appeal to voters who wouldn’t have dreamt of backing them in 2019 – and in huge numbers. But it also has to keep its existing base on board, to make sure they campaign and turn out.

What Labour bosses never forget – even if some of its more excitable supporters do – is that to win a majority, the party has to win a swing bigger than Tony Blair did in 1997, when he redrew the electoral map.

To have a majority of even one MP, Keir Starmer, Rachel Reeves, Wes Streeting, Angela Rayner and the rest of his team have to do better – far better – than Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Jack Straw, David Blunkett and the rest.

In 2019 it felt implausible that they would be anywhere within reach. Now, the party is increasingly taking decisions and marking positions as those it would defend in government. It is spending huge amounts of time preparing to govern, not just campaign.

Yet as both Starmer and Sunak are only too happy to remind you, voters face a different choice in a general election than what they say to a pollster, or when they pick a local councillor.

It is still “if” not “when” the Labour leader becomes prime minister – and there is plenty of danger ahead.

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