How Keir Starmer lost control of the Diane Abbott row

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With a week having passed since a sodden Rishi Sunak shocked the country by calling a summer election, both the Conservative and Labour campaigns are in full swing. The Tories, for one, have settled on a remarkably unsubtle “core vote” strategy — designed to tempt Conservative-leaning electors back to the party with a series of carrots: notably national service for 18-year-olds and a pensions “triple lock plus”.

The prime minister has been fast out of the election blocks, of course, because he recognises just how significant Labour’s lead is. In this regard, a trio of polls published yesterday — with the fieldwork having been conducted after the PM’s election announcement — will hardly have lifted Conservative spirits. Survation records the Labour lead at 23 points (the party’s best result with the pollster since November 2022); Redfield & Wilton agrees, also placing Labour 23 points ahead; while JL Partners has Labour’s lead at 12 points, down from 15 in early May.

On top of all this, a YouGov poll published this morning — with the fieldwork having been conducted after the PM’s recent policy blitz  — puts Labour 27 points ahead of the Conservatives. Only 8 per cent of voters under 50, according to the poll, plan to back Rishi Sunak’s party — a standing equal with Reform and behind that of the Greens.

An individual poll can only ever paint a partial picture; but viewed together, this data suggests there has been little movement among the electorate since Sunak stepped onto Downing Street a week ago. It’s welcome news for Keir Starmer; and rather less welcome news for the PM, whose campaign has already been dogged by low morale and not a few gaffes.

But while Labour’s fundamentals seem strong indeed, the story driving the election conversation today concerns the political future of veteran MP Diane Abbott.

In April 2023, Abbott was suspended from Labour after suggesting Jewish people do not experience racism, but rather prejudice similar to redheads. The former shadow home secretary swiftly apologised over the comments and said the letter published in The Observer had been an “initial draft” sent by mistake.

As such, over the past few months — and particularly as the scandal over Conservative donor Frank Hester’s comments loomed, Abbott’s political future has been something of a mystery.

After all, the veteran MP was understood to still be under investigation within Labour when Sunak called the election last week — a move which naturally brought her status to the fore. Would, after a swift apology and a months-long investigation, Abbott be allowed to stand as a Labour candidate in her Hackney North and Stoke Newington seat? It is a question that, a week on, is still yet to have been answered definitively.

On Tuesday, eyebrows were raised after a Newsnight report found that the investigation into Abbott had actually concluded in December last year, with the veteran MP given a formal warning over her conduct and required to complete an antisemitism awareness course.

Matters came further to a head yesterday evening when The Times reported that Abbott, Britain’s first black female MP, will not be allowed to stand for Labour at the election. The scoop followed a slew of related media reports indicating that Abbott had had the Labour whip restored. The choreography suggested that the veteran MP was being granted a dignified departure by the Labour leadership, on the agreement she would not stand for re-election.

This morning, Abbott publicly confirmed The Times story, texting one BBC journalist on the record: “Although the whip has been restored, I am banned from standing as a Labour candidate”. She gave similar comments to other news outlets.

But this afternoon arrived with a further twist: during a campaign event in the West Midlands, ostensibly focussed on cutting NHS waiting lists, Starmer denied that Abbott had been barred from standing for Labour at the election — insisting no decision has yet been made.

“No decision has been taken to bar Diane Abbott”, Starmer told broadcasters, adding: “The process that we were going through ended with the restoration of the whip the other day.”

Abbott’s political future, then, is no clearer now than it was when the campaign began. Indeed, as far as the Labour leader is concerned, Starmer’s lack of a definitive response would suggest he is happy to let the story rumble on. It begs an obvious question: at what cost?

Seven days into the six-week election campaign, the Abbott story continues to steal focus away from Labour’s policy programme and messaging. Today, Labour’s flagship campaign event on cutting NHS waiting lists — a plan which features prominently in Starmer’s “steps” and “missions” — was dominated by questions over the veteran MP.

The matter has also gifted attack lines for Labour’s rivals in the SNP and Conservative Party. Stephen Flynn, the SNP Westminster leader, hailed Abbott as a “phenomenal individual” this morning as he described the situation as a “pretty sorry state of affairs” for Labour. Elsewhere, Conservative Party chairman Richard Holden has written to Keir Starmer demanding answers to three questions about the “false comments” he made to the media over the investigation.

And all the while, concern within the Labour family over Abbott’s treatment is spreading way beyond her usual allies on the left. Blair-era political adviser John McTernan, who is about as far from politically aligned with Abbott as you can get, argued yesterday that those responsible for her treatment should “hang their heads in shame.” The situation, of course, has only intensified since McTernan made those remarks.

In this way, the relationship between Abbott and the Labour leadership seems tenser than ever; and it is beginning to impinge directly on the dynamics of this election. A week into the campaign, one reading would suggest, Keir Starmer has made his first unforced error. Certainly, in the wake of recent polling, the matter will be lightening the mood in CCHQ.

In the end, Abbott’s candidacy is a decision for Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) which meets next on 4th June to fully finalise the party’s election slate. Abbott, meanwhile, seems determined to decide her future on her own terms; and with any remaining good faith between the veteran MP and the Labour leadership likely destroyed by The Times report, this matter would seem far from over.

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