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Labour prepares for first 100 days as Tories slide into chaos

Sunak and Starmer clashing at PMQs on Wednesday. Photograph: Parliament TV
Sunak and Starmer clashing at PMQs on Wednesday. Photograph: Parliament TV
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The strategy came together rather easily when Keir Starmer met with a small group of advisers early on Wednesday to discuss possible avenues of attack for the prime minister’s questions. Starmer, his officials say, generally arrives at his office in parliament early and is “incredibly well informed about what has been in all the papers and the media” but on this occasion no one had had to search too far for material.

The best line – from Labour’s point of view – was staring Starmer and his team in the face. Late the previous evening, news had broken on social media that the Tory MP and ex-cabinet minister Simon Clarke had written a piece for Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph calling for Rishi Sunak to be ousted. If he were to lead the Conservatives into a general election, Clarke wrote, “extinction” was “a very real possibility” for his party. So extreme was the language that it read like a Labour critique of the prime minster. “He does not get what Britain needs and he is not listening to what the British people want,” said Clarke.

The possibilities for the opposition leader were endless, and at the meeting broad lines were agreed. Starmer could draw obvious contrasts between divided Tories fighting each other and losing faith in their leader, and a united Labour party focused on getting ready to take over. Unsurprisingly, Starmer landed some decent blows just after midday, the best of which was when he surprised his staff by ad-libbing his own version of Tony Blair’s lethal attack on John Major in 1995 (“I lead my party. He follows his”), telling Sunak: “I have changed my party. He is bullied by his.”

For Labour, though, it was about more than Starmer putting on a good show at the dispatch box and the theatre of one day’s PMQs. The messages fitted well into the broader theme of a Labour party seriously, and painstakingly, getting ready for its chance to govern and change the country, against a divided and exhausted Conservative party which cannot focus on the nation’s needs as it panics and tears itself to pieces over the ever more likely prospect of crushing defeat.

For Clarke, however, the reaction to his piece among fellow Conservatives was not as he had hoped. Even by the standards of many of his friends on the party’s right, his critique seemed wild. It was not the moment, MPs said, ahead of difficult byelections in February and local elections in May. Tory WhatsApp groups erupted with rage and frustration, describing Clarke variously as self-indulgent, delusional or, more straightforwardly, “a tosser”.

Some pointed to the reaction of Priti Patel – a potential rightwing leadership candidate in the event of a Tory election loss – as being the most significant one.

She quickly backed Sunak and said that Clarke – who had been at Stamford Bridge watching his team, Middlesbrough, being thrashed 6-1 by Chelsea in the Carabao Cup when news about his piece first surfaced – was engaging in “facile and divisive self-indulgence”.

Liz Truss, a former ally of Clarke, had been at a private members’ club in London with a group of political friends when she heard of the “one-man coup” and is said to have been as shocked as everyone else.

By Wednesday morning, Tory ministers felt secure enough to be making jokes about the ostracisation of the 6ft 7in Sir Simon. As one put it, Sunak had survived “the knife of the long knight”.

Another minister mocked the attention the “plot” had been given. “Reading some stuff, it’s as if there’s this great cell set somewhere in west London, where they’re working out who’s going to emerge after the byelection or local elections,” the minister said. “I don’t see it. There’s people who hate Rishi because they love Boris and they think that he’s rich. They’re just stupid, like the people who did the same in the run-up to [the election in] 1997. I would have thought the reaction to Simon Clarke would give a lot of pause for thought.”

But the episode had opened still more Tory divisions, and raised some serious questions. Some close to Sunak asked why he was not being more ruthless in dealing with rebels such as Clarke and the Tories who had voted against his Rwanda bill the week before.

“We should just take the whip off them,” said one. “Because that would be the strongest signal that if you do this, you’re out. Labour has done this all the time. Once you start doing that, people will know that they haven’t got a chance to come back. That will be it.”

What was worrying loyal Tories most was that, even if Clarke did misfire and go off on his own, there were indications that some form of coordination was taking place among enemies of the prime minister in the broader sense. Clarke’s broadside had come after a mystery donor had funded a huge opinion poll pointing to a Labour landslide, the results of which had been published in the Daily Telegraph. The poll had been funded through a new group called the Conservative Britain Alliance; Boris Johnson’s ally Lord Frost has since emerged as its frontman. One Tory grandee noted scornfully: “Conservative British Alliance. CBA. Youth slang for Can’t be Arsed. Frost razor sharp!”

On top of all that, there were concerns that the Telegraph, the Tory party’s publication of choice, had been seemingly willing to promote such anti-Sunak material.

Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow ministers, MPs, officials and party workers are being called, in no uncertain terms, into line. While the Tories face their own existential questions and struggle to hang together, team Starmer is imposing a level of discipline and message control to rival that of New Labour in the run-up to 1997.

Starmer’s head of campaigns, Morgan McSweeney, is telling everyone to plan for a general election on 2 May. He seems to think the Tories may still go early, but this is also a way to ensure everyone is ready.

The message is getting through. One senior official said: “We have to prepare for May because we have no choice. And that means everything has to be ready to go from mid-March – the budget, money, candidates, manifesto.”

Team Starmer also points to other factors as evidence that May is in play: for example, the Tories having chosen 4 March as the date of the budget – and their talk of tax cuts – as well as their rising spending on online ads and the speeding-up of Conservative candidate selections.

Everything is cranking into gear. Talks between shadow ministers and civil servants in each government department will begin between now and Easter in preparation for a potential transition. Members of the shadow cabinet have been told to submit their plans for inclusion in Labour’s election manifesto by 8 February, so they can be subjected to intense “stress testing” and be thoroughly “bomb-proofed”.

The process is multilayered. Among the officials at the heart of it all are Rav Athwal, a former Treasury official and economist who is now in charge of drawing up the manifesto (and checking the sums add up), and Sue Gray, the former senior civil servant working as Starmer’s chief of staff – one of whose roles is to tell everyone, from her vast experience of government, what is feasible and deliverable once in power.

The shadow Cabinet Office minister Jonathan Ashworth has been given the key role of assessing the political attacks that other parties might launch on each policy in a campaign, and how to defend them. Recently, Ashworth told the shadow cabinet that in the otherwise hugely successful 1997 campaign Labour lost vital time because it found itself under pressure over a forgotten pledge to privatise air traffic control that had been made at a party conference then never developed afterwards. “It’s that kind of mistake we have to avoid,” said a source.

The shadow leader of the House, Lucy Powell, is chairing a special committee looking at what legislation can be included in a king’s speech that will have to be delivered with a few weeks of any Labour victory. Her counterpart in the Lords, Angela Smith, the shadow attorney general, Emily Thornberry, and Gray are on this legislation committee, as well as the chief whips in the Commons and Lords. Another source said: “If we win, we have to have bills ready to go within a few weeks of coming in. There will be literally no time to waste. We have to hit the ground running. Lucy is going round saying we can’t leave it till after the election and then say: ‘Oh shit, we haven’t got anything’.”

Before Christmas, the party moved into a new, open-plan headquarters in Southwark. There insiders say they have noticed the formation of a “top table” group who meet regularly and operate on a “hotdesk” basis. They include the likes of Athwal, Gray, shadow chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster Pat McFadden, McSweeney, and McSweeney’s deputy Marianna McFadden. Katie Martin, chief of staff to shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, is also involved.

Some in senior positions in the Labour party are concerned that the operation is too controlled, meaning people are afraid to speak with confidence about ideas. Others worry that there is a lack of political thinking going on about what Labour’s story will be if and when it wins. “We are going to be an unpopular government. There is a lot of ‘day one’ work going on – on legislation we are getting going. But who is doing the political work? Who is there thinking about what the message will be when we are there? What we are there for? I don’t see that work going on.”

In answer to those who claim they are too cautious and controlling, team Starmer says that in a world where trust in politics and politicians has been eroded, Labour has to reassure to be credible, rather than talk and promise too big.

“We have to tell a story that the Tories have destroyed the country but our offer also has to have reassurance that we will deliver at its heart. The hope we offer has to be based on reassurance,” says one key aide.

Discipline is regularly coupled with cautionary talks from the Labour pollster Deborah Mattinson about the electoral mountain the party has to climb. “We know we need a 12.7% swing, and in 1997 we got a 10.6% swing – so we need a 20% bigger swing than in ’97. No one is getting overexcited. It is not electorally straightforward,” said another senior party figure.

As Labour readies itself – not without its own internal worries, tensions and inevitable paranoia after four consecutive election losses – a low-key war of attrition against Sunak rumbles on. Truss supporters are planning something resembling a relaunch next month with a new grouping they are calling “Popular Conservatism”, or “PopCon” for short.

Some Tory MPs are nervous after the Clarke intervention, even though it fizzled out before it could become a crisis. “Obviously there is a slight concern that we’ll look back and think these were the very first rumblings,” said one loyalist. “But I think in real life, there just aren’t enough months to coalesce around someone else – so let’s just not be silly.”

Many Tories are simply desperate to start testing Starmer – frustrated in the belief that if they can only string together a few weeks of unity, scrutiny will begin to undo the Labour leader’s cautious strategy. “I have not met a single person who has ever said to me, ‘I’m excited to be voting for Keir Starmer’s Labour party,” said one MP. “We should be sitting here saying we can’t believe our luck that he is our opponent.”

With perfect timing, Tory MPs had to gather together on Wednesday evening for a “family photo” to mark the centenary of the 1922 Committee – essentially the trade union of Tory MPs. Clarke was a notable absentee. Yet the latest bout of ill-discipline left one of those lining up shoulder-to-shoulder with colleagues having a grim flash of the future.

“I’m not sure, if we do a version this time next year, that there’ll be quite so many people,” the MP said.

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Dulal Ahmed Chowdhury is the Editor of The Daily Dazzling Dawn. Previously, he has been serving in important positions in all the famous national dailies of the Bangladesh since the nineties. He has played a commendable role in journalism by participating in various events at the national and international levels. United Nations Conference, World Climate Conference, SAARC Summit are notable among them.

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