Picture by Rory Arnold/ No 10 Downing Street

Keir Starmer’s ‘monumental sandcastle’ is a strategic triumph — but politically brittle

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Keir Starmer is Britain’s new prime minister. He addressed the nation for the first time on the steps of Downing Street this afternoon, having been formally asked by the King to form a government just minutes earlier.

I invite you all to join this government of service in the mission of national renewal”, Starmer said. “Our work is urgent and we begin it today”. Read the full speech — in which Starmer rebukes performative, doctrinaire politics — here.

Of course, the new PM’s speech followed that of Rishi Sunak, who is today officially a former prime minister. “I have given this job my all”, Sunak said. It wasn’t enough. You can read his apologetic address — a final full stop on his self-admittedly “difficult” time in office — here.

As such, Britain’s constitutional choreography has seamlessly swept one premier out of Downing Street and brushed in another. It’s a striking dichotomy with the political carnage we witnessed overnight, as Conservative MP after Conservative MP — including an array of household names — saw their political careers brought to an unceremonious end by a merciless electorate.

The pick of the “Portillo Moments” was Liz Truss in South West Norfolk; today, Truss is both a former prime minister and a former MP. Meanwhile, ex-cabinet ministers Penny Mordaunt, Grant Shapps, Alex Chalk, Simon Hart and Gillian Keegan were deprived not only of their ministerial red boxes but their MP offices too. A full, exhaustive list of notable Tory casualties can be found here.

After all, the Conservative parliamentary party today is a fraction of its former self. With two seats left to declare, it has been reduced to 121 seats, down 250.

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Across the country, Nigel Farage’s Reform UK ravaged the traditional Tory vote, relegating the Conservatives to second in a slew of seats. (In total, Reform came in second in 103 constituencies; in 12 of these, it was within 5,000 votes of winning). Today, Reform boasts four MPs, namely Farage in Clacton, Richard Tice in Boston and Skegness, Lee Anderson in Ashfield and Rupert Lowe in Great Yarmouth. Reform’s parliamentary “bridgehead” is formed.

But the real story of the election, naturally, is the extent of Labour’s parliamentary domination. Again, with all but two constituencies now declared, Labour has won 412 seats. The projected majority is the largest since Tony Blair’s first term as prime minister in 1997; and Starmer has bested Labour’s other two prime ministers, Harold Wilson (largest majority 97) and Clement Attlee (147) pretty considerably.

After 14 years of Conservative-led government, the result would appear to herald a new political epoch. Certainly, some of Labour’s seat victories this election, show Starmer’s party advancing in some seriously unlikely areas; the tectonic plates of British politics have shifted so that Labour repeatedly shattered the previous Conservative-to-Labour swing record (18.8 points in Brent North, 1997) overnight. After all, the biggest Tory-to-Labour swing this election was recorded in South West Norfolk (Truss’ seat) at 25.9 percentage points.

Equally, Labour capitalised on the collapse of the SNP in Scotland as the pro-independence party lost 37 seats to finish on nine. Comparatively, Scottish Labour won 37 seats, up 35.

But — and Labour’s landslide is replete with “buts”, Starmer’s victory also holds some significant warnings for the triumphant party. Here’s one: even though Labour doubled its seat tally this election, the overall vote share for Keir Starmer’s party is only around two points higher than in 2019 — which amounted to a cataclysmic defeat.

Arguably, that Labour has won on these terms — the terms set by Britain’s first past the post system — is a testament to the strategic nous of Keir Starmer’s team, which has prosecuted an immensely efficient electoral strategy. Broadly, Labour has won votes where it needed to but lost ground in many constituencies previously considered “safe”: a politically rewarding trade-off.

But this dynamic manifested brutally for a number of senior Labour figures. In total this election, Labour lost four seats to pro-Gaza independent candidates — including in Leicester South, where shadow cabinet office minister Jonathan Ashworth stood, as well as in Blackburn, in Dewsbury and Batley and in Birmingham Perry Barr. That is not to mention Islington North, where Jeremy Corbyn triumphed as an independent over his Labour opponent.

In several other seats, high-profile Labour MPs were also run close by independent candidates, including in Ilford, where shadow health secretary Wes Streeting won by only 528 votes more than his closest rival.

Elsewhere, the Green Party won all four of its target seats in Brighton Pavilion, Bristol Central, Waveney Valley, and North Herefordshire. And nationally, the Greens managed to increase their vote share from 2.7 per cent in 2019 to 7 per cent in 2024. It’s a striking result — and a potentially portentous one for Keir Starmer and Labour.

Through the course of the next parliament, we can expect the electoral possibilities for the Green Party — and crucially media coverage — to proliferate. Starmer’s inheritance from the Conservatives this election, it is oft-commented, is historically harrowing. It stands to reason that, if a section of the electorate is alienated by some of the tough decisions Starmer looks set to make over the next few years, opposition parties could capitalise — especially those demanding more radical action.

Then there are the broader observations: turnout is estimated to stand at 60 per cent, down from 67 per cent in 2019. Because of this low figure, Starmer’s Labour received half a million fewer votes than Corbyn’s Labour in 2019.

The new PM’s riposte to those who point out a lack of popular enthusiasm in his political project is that, over 14 years of Conservative government, voters have had the “hope beaten out of them”. If he is to succeed as prime minister, the Labour leader, frankly, must now beat it back in.

On top of this, the collapse of the Tories’ 80-seat majority, recorded at 2019, in favour of Labour’s own landslide result is itself proof of an immensely volatile, ruthless electorate — one willing to surmount seemingly insurmountable governments.

James Kanagasooriam, chief research officer at polling firm Focaldata, warned during the campaign that Labour could be building a “monumental sandcastle”. Kanagasooriam’s thesis was that, like Boris Johnson in 2019, Starmer’s victory could rely on a broad but shallow coalition — which might be easily uprooted by relatively slight shifts in public opinion, let alone any tidal change.

In this regard, Starmer’s achievement this election amounts to a political paradox: a seismic victory replete with potential vulnerabilities.

Of course, Starmer can likely rely on the Conservative opposition locking itself into some psychodramatic tailspin over the first few months of his premiership. But his victory is still laden with warnings, from all of pro-Gaza, Faragist and Green forces. If Starmer has indeed constructed a “monumental sandcastle”, as Kanagasooriam foretold, his job now will be to fortify it through action.

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Lunchtime briefing

Mordaunt, Rees-Mogg and Shapps among Conservative election casualties

Exit poll: Ed Davey ‘humbled’ as Liberal Democrats forecast to win 61 seats

Lunchtime soundbite

‘You have given us a clear mandate and we will use it to deliver change, to restore service and respect to politics, end the era of noisy performance, tread more lightly on your lives and unite our country’

— Keir Starmer addresses the nation in his first speech as prime minister. Read it in full here.

Now try this…

An open letter to the Conservatives
Gavin Barwell, former Chief of Staff to Theresa May, for ConservativeHome.

Nigel Farage storms the UK parliament. Cue the Jaws music
Politico reports.

Starmer’s victory speech was a display of humble realism
The New Statesman’s Freddie Hayward writes. (Paywall)

On this day in 2022:

Sunak and Javid resign; replaced by Zahawi and Barclay

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