Labour’s small boats strategy is the essence of ‘Starmerism’

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With Keir Starmer in Dover talking about small boats and Rishi Sunak out celebrating Britain’s escape from the clutches of recession, today is a day that will become more and more typical as we amble the long road to a general election.

As far as the prime minister is concerned, the news this morning that the UK economy grew by 0.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2024 will be welcome indeed, (the higher-than-expected growth figure means the UK has exited recession after consecutive quarters of economic contraction). Labour activists will now be forced to down their “Rishession” placards; and, rather more crucially, the PM’s pitch that the “plan is working” actually has some hard data behind it.

Still, senior Labour figures will insist they were prepared for the economy’s inevitable improvement. As I wrote earlier this week, Rachel Reeves has been busy trying to get ahead of today’s news.

But, the shadow chancellor’s recent intervention aside, it’s clear that GDP increasing is a good development for the PM — and a rare one at that. Speaking during a visit to a business in Oxfordshire this morning, joined by chancellor Jeremy Hunt, Sunak insisted that “things are starting to feel better” and that confidence in the economy is growing.

But attracting the greatest share of Westminster’s attention today is Keir Starmer, who spoke this morning at a rival event in Dover, the seat of Labour’s newest MP Natalie Elphicke. There, Starmer unveiled his plan to tackle rising “small boat” crossings — with a new Border Security Command sold as his centrepiece proposal. You can read more on Labour’s plan here.

Speaking from her constituency, Elphicke loyally introduced her new leader, declaring: “It’s clear that Rishi Sunak has failed to keep our border secure. A fresh approach is needed — an approach that puts at its heart a commitment to border security”. Starmer, for what it’s worth, still shows no sign of kowtowing to the Labour backlash surrounding Elphicke’s defection. He immediately insisted that it is “great” to have the former Tory onboard.

With the crowd suitably warmed by Elphicke’s intro, Starmer soon launched into his pitch on illegal migration. The speech was full of swipes at the government’s “talk tough, do nothing culture” — but this was the most substantively significant section:

[The new] Border Security Command will bring together hundreds of specialist investigators. … From the National Crime Agency, the Border Force, Immigration Enforcement, the Crown Prosecution Service, and yes — MI5, all working to a single mission, all freed from the cloying bureaucracy that so often prevents collaboration between different institutions.

Starmer went on to confirm that the new Border Security Command would be funded by diverting a portion of the money being spent on the Rwanda plan (£75 million allocated for year 1); the Labour leader committed to scrapping the government’s flagship deportation scheme no later than “straight away” after an election.

“We are going to get rid of the policy straight away. I am not going to continue a policy I don’t think is going to work that is going to cost a fortune”, Starmer said in his post-speech Q&A.

It’s a bold approach from the Labour leader and it will undoubtedly excite the Conservatives’ political strategists, many of whom think the operationalisation of the Rwanda plan could cause Starmer difficulties — both as an election nears and, crucially, during an election campaign.

But Starmer has stuck to his anti-Rwanda plan guns rigidly in recent weeks, rubbishing the plan as an expensive, overly elaborate gimmick. In his speech today, Starmer again pledged to prioritise the “politics of practical solutions” and “reject the politics of performative symbols”.

In this way, despite Starmer’s new plan for a Border Security Command, the essence of Labour’s approach is that, when it comes to tackling channel crossings, it will run the state better and more efficiently.

As such, the real dividing line Starmer wants to create on illegal migration is not whether he does or doesn’t back the Rwanda plan. (Conservative strategists think Labour’s position here can be leveraged as part of a broader pitch to prove Starmer is not serious about “stopping the boats”).

Rather, the Labour leader intends to reframe the debate as simply “effective” versus “performative” government. It’s an understated yet bold strategy: sounds like Starmerism to me.

More defections?

After Elphicke’s on Wednesday, senior Labour figures are also continuing to hint that further Con-Lab defections are in the pipeline, with shadow health secretary Wes Streeting the latest to suggest as much. Speaking to The Independent, he claims to have spoken to more MPs thinking about escaping the “division and incompetence” of Sunak’s government. More here.

Indeed, given Dr Dan Poulter’s defection last month was used to attack the government on the NHS, with Starmer since seizing on Natalie Elphicke’s to boost his illegal migration plans — who might be next?

Lunchtime briefing

Wes Streeting claims Labour talking to more Conservative MPs about defecting

John Swinney says Scottish independence ‘can be delivered’ in five years

Starmer vows to restore ‘integrity’ to asylum system with new Border Security Command

Lunchtime soundbite

‘Had she gone to Reform or the BNP we would have kind of understood it, but it was very, very strange’

—  Mark Garnier, the Conservative MP for Wyre Forest, speaks to PoliticsHome about his former colleague Natalie Elphicke’s defection to Labour. More here.

Now try this…

Tory MP says BNP is a better fit for Natalie Elphicke than Labour
PoliticsHome reports.

How to prepare a secret Tory leadership campaign
After the Conservatives’ drubbing in the local elections, Politico’s Aggie Chambre has this podcast on how to prepare a secret Conservative leadership campaign.

How Labour should handle the rise of the Greens
The New Statesman’s David Gauke writes that Keir Starmer’s party must learn from the Conservatives’ response to Reform UK. (Paywall)

On this day in 2023:

Archbishop of Canterbury to condemn small boats bill – as Braverman warns peers not to deny ‘will of the people’

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