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Squaring Up? Or Winding Down?

Rishi Sunak claims he can win he next election. Sounds like a joke, except that Keir Starmer is not laughing. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, both party leaders know they’re reliant on factors beyond their control.

Labour may be miles ahead in the polls, reflected in England’s town hall elections this month, which saw the Tories turn in their worst performance ever.

But back in 1991 a Labour lead every bit as big evaporated after the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher. And they lost the following year.

Ok, the Conservatives can’t exactly chuck out yet another leader without looking complete nincompoops, but the economy might yet come to Sunak’s aid.

Soaring inflation, the trigger for the wave of strikes that’s still ongoing, is likely to ease. And that in itself might do much the soften the nation’s mood.

If so, it’ll be the Dickens character Wilkins Micawber’s something will turn up dream come true.

Not that such dewy-eyed optimism seems to be universally shared by those who’d normally be expected to say nice things about Conservative governments.

‘An unpardonable exercise in second-hand, pantomime conservatism. Voters don’t like being taken for fools, and their revenge will be savage.’

That’s not a left-wing hack’s predictable rant about the Tories’ record in office, but the considered judgement of the editor of the Sunday Telegraph.

And plenty of Conservative members seem to go along with that, to judge by the staging last week of not one but two dissident gatherings.

Nothing out of the ordinary for opinionated outriders to get things of their chests at fringe meetings during parties’ annual conferences.

But for them to do so at their own separate rallies is something else. Not so much navel-gazing as stabbing themselves in the tummy-button.

Or as Starmer put it: ‘A series of mad hatters’ tea parties. Carnivals of conspiracy and blame.’

Number Ten might privately agree, given that the charge was led not by once or future heavyweights but by a serving senior cabinet minister.

That’ll be Suella Braverman then. Currently Home Secretary, darling of the party’s populist right, and clearly pitching for the top job.

She’s already got the sack once, for compromising government security, and it’s a safe bet Sunak would love to give her the heave-ho again.

He brought her in on the Lyndon Johnson premise that dangerous elements are better ‘inside the tent pissing out’ than the other way round.

But clearly in her case the strategy hasn’t worked.

Her big beef was legal migration. Bit of a tender area for Sunak, as he’s already admitted he can’t keep his party’s repeated promises to cut numbers.

Indeed, a big jump is due to be announced this week, which will make a lot of swing voters in the forty-five so-called ‘red wall’ constituencies see extra red.

Braverman’s pitch was we can perfectly well plug gaps in our labour market by training our own lorry drivers, butchers and fruit-pickers.

‘It’s not racist for anyone, ethnic minority or otherwise, to want to control our borders,’ she declared.

No one on her own side went to far as to wonder out loud what bit of the word ‘racist’ does she not understand.

But many Tory MPs didn’t like her tone, variously describing it as ‘distasteful’ and ‘outrageous,’ while one minister called it ‘crazed’.

Downing Street denied there was any kind of rift, but her words were flatly contradicted both by Number Ten and Number Eleven.

Sunak said he’d welcome more migrant workers to pick fruit, and the Chancellor insisted on a ‘sensible and pragmatic’ approach to filling job vacancies.

The Education Secretary goes further, pushing for ever more foreign students to come here, on the grounds they grow our economy and prestige.

Starmer, meanwhile, is doubtless hoping the Tories will tear themselves apart, to save him the bother. Might even be adapting a thought from Hamlet:

‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt. Thaw and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!’

Not that he’s relying on collective Conservative suicide. Though those town hall results looked good for Labour, they don’t guarantee a win.

So he’s tapping into areas of potential Tory weakness, both big and small.

On housing, for example, he’s taken the relatively risky step of promising to relax controls on building in the hitherto sacrosanct green belt.

His calculation being that the urgent and widespread need for more homes will trump natural nimbyism.

He also thinks Sunak’s being forced by his own backbenchers to drop compulsory housebuilding targets will make the contrast even starker.

Then, a much bigger deal, Starmer’s dared to talk of renegotiating UK’s trade terms with the European Union.

That’s had the Tory right and their media backers frothing at the mouth, in spite of his protestations that he’s not trying reverse Brexit.

His calculation here is that another look at the terms of our departure is long overdue.

Given the clear evidence that Boris Johnson’s ‘oven-ready’ deal was actually barely out of the freezer, he’s probably on to a winner.

Opinion polls show masses of buyers’ remorse about leaving, and even Mr Brexit himself – Nigel Farage – has admitted the upshot was a pig’s ear.

Starmer’s stance will certainly play well with the Lib Dems, and their supporters if they go for tactical voting at the general election.

Won’t do him any harm north of the border either, as Scotland voted by a clear majority to stay in the European Union.

Particularly rich potential pickings there in Labour’s erstwhile heartlands, as the party eyes up the current crisis gripping the ScotNats.

Oh and btw, Starmer may also give the vote to millions of European citizens with settled status in UK if he wins. And to older teenagers.

This would be the biggest expansion to the franchise in nearly a century – and a likely lifeline for future Labour governments.

Talking of lifelines, they do come in all manner of shapes and sizes.

The Keswick Mountain Rescue team regularly has to stretcher climbers down from Scafell Pike, England’s highest peak. It’s what they’re there for.

But it’s not every day they have to do the same for a dog.

However, a poor Akita named Rocky found he just couldn’t make it down. He was simply too exhausted, and had cut his paws on the rocky pathways.

The National Trust website, clearly not read by Rocky, suggests: ‘It’s perhaps worth trying a few lower, introductory walks before trying Scafell Pike.’

Not that the team minded. ‘Despite being quite a large dog it was a joy to carry such a relatively lightweight casualty,’ said a spokesman. Adding:

‘The casualty remained cool, calm and positively regal throughout.’

Well he would, wouldn’t he? It’s what a dog’s life’s all about.


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