Tuesday, October 4, 2022

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Keir Starmer can afford to be polite to Liz Truss for one important reason | John Rentoul

What goes on behind the speaker’s seat in the House of Commons, away from the cameras, tells us a lot about the state of affairs in politics. Shortly after Buckingham Palace announced that doctors were “concerned” about the Queen’s health, Keir Starmer and Liz Truss both left the room – and from the press gallery I could see them talking, presumably about the statements they would have to make.

One of the big changes of the Department of Truss is that she and the leader of the opposition get along. This was not the case with Boris Johnson. Starmer once had a angry confrontation with the former prime minister in the corridor behind the speaker’s chair. Starmer accused him of falsely claiming that Labor wanted to join the EU’s vaccine program – Starmer then had to apologize for hearing wrong, but even in public he failed to hide his personal distaste for Johnson.

With Truss, however, he is respectful. When they first met during the Prime Minister’s questions the day before the Queen died, he was perfunctory in his congratulations, and curiously, did not offer to work with the government to deal with the energy crisis. “We’ve been doing all those supportive things during the pandemic, and where has it taken us,” asked a Labor source. But Starmer was careful to avoid personal insults – and I’m told they have a good relationship privately.

Starmer can be polite to Truss because he can afford it. Johnson was a centrist: an amalgam of New Labor Brexity Hezza that Starmer could not possibly master. With so little between them in terms of policy, Starmer had to attack Johnson’s character – and Johnson generously gave him enough material to do so.

Truss has been driven downtown because of the energy price freeze, but she’s not a centrist. She didn’t want to announce the biggest state intervention since the last, just a few years ago. She continues to push for an unpopular policy of the people of Starmer embracing themselves with joy, staring straight at the world and insisting, “No complacency.”

She and Kwasi Kwarteng, her chancellor, want higher bonuses for bankers and low-paid workers to work more hours than the EU Working Time Directive allows. They refuse to raise the windfall tax on oil and gas companies, one of the most popular policies ever polled, and want to borrow the money instead.

In addition, they have insulted the civil service by firing Sir Tom Scholar, the popular and experienced Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, against whom they seem to hold a grudge after the 2017 election, when Truss was Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Kwarteng was a parliamentary private. secretary to Philip Hammond, the Chancellor.

It is possible, as John McTernan, Tony Blair’s former political secretary, argues, that Starmer is falling into Truss’s trap rather than the other way around. McTernan says of capping City bonuses: “It’s not the specific policy detail that matters; it is the feeling of the general direction.” Enriching bankers and oil companies may be controversial, but it advertises a government that will “go for growth” – while Labor always wants to tax and talk about how to redistribute the proceeds.

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It’s a theory anyway. The model is Margaret Thatcher’s early reign. Her policies were unpopular and she too waged war with the civil service. Kwarteng wrote a book in 2015 Thatcher’s Process, a report of the six months from the March 1981 budget to the cabinet reshuffle in September. “During this period, Margaret Thatcher showed herself inflexible, hard-hearted and courageous,” Kwarteng wrote. “Her judgments were clear, but often idiosyncratic; her confidence faltered at times, although she never dulled her message publicly.” Do you remember someone?

Kwarteng is an impressive historian; McTernan is a great political analyst; and it is worth being aware of the ways in which conventional wisdom can do things wrong; but in my opinion this is a plan of Baldrickesque cunning. Many people were Thatcher wrong in 1981, but that doesn’t mean they are wrong about Truss now. If you do really unpopular things, you tend to become really unpopular. And vice versa, if you don’t do really popular things, you give your opponents a stick with which they can beat you.

No wonder Keir Starmer looks like he can’t believe his luck. He can be as extensively courteous as he wants to Truss while politely disagreeing with his policies, knowing he is on the right side of public opinion. Perhaps the economy and public finances will flip and save Truss as they did Thatcher in 1982-83, but it doesn’t seem likely.

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