This Tory long goodbye is toxic for the country – and making Labour’s job ever harder | Jonathan Freedland

We’re at the fag-end of this government, but it’s going to burn for a while longer yet. Those who hoped it might finally be stubbed out of its misery on 2 May were set straight by Rishi Sunak on Thursday, when he killed off speculation that he might add to the clutch of local elections scheduled for that day by calling a general one. The long wait for this government to be flattened under the voters’ collective shoe goes on.

We’ve lived through fag-end administrations before, but this one is more toxic. Back in the dog days of the John Major era, it was bonking backbenchers and brown-envelope cash for questions that pointed to the political terminus. This time, the rot is graver.

We have a prime minister who took more than 24 hours to concede that comments made by the party’s biggest donor – suggesting Diane Abbott be “shot”, and that the Hackney North MP made you “want to hate all black women” – were, in fact, racist. Until then, it seems, Downing Street accepted the health tech magnate Frank Hester’s insistence that citing Abbott when speaking about hating people who are female and black “had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”. Still, the belated admission has come with no promise to return the £10m Hester is confirmed to have given, nor the reported additional donation of £5m. The Tory position seems to be: guilty of making racist remarks he might be, but Hester’s money is good and we’re clinging to it.

What secret trysts and Paris Ritz hotel bills were to the Major years, race and racism are to the last days of Sunak. On Thursday, Michael Gove unveiled a new definition of extremism, by which he hopes to target neo-Nazi groups and organisations with what he called “Islamist orientation and beliefs”. His move comes just as the Tory right has spotted a culture war opportunity in exploiting anti-Muslim sentiment, casting Labour as either too weak in the face of, or even in thrall to, Islamist extremism. Lee Anderson’s defection to Reform, after he said the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, was controlled by Islamist “mates”, has led some Conservatives to conclude there is a risk of being overtaken on the Islamophobic right – and that that is a constituency that needs to be fed.

In this climate, it’s hardly surprising that the government is moving to offer people denied asylum up to £3,000 to “encourage” them to move to Rwanda, a scheme that, to quote the Labour peer Stewart Wood, suggests “a government that is so determined to nail the people traffickers that it has decided to subsidise them”. The same elements recur: a governing party whose time is running out and that has concluded, in its desperation, that the last seam of votes to be mined is among those who demand an ever harsher face be turned toward refugees and minorities.

The longer this goes on, the worse it is for the country. While governments in their death throes might not be able to do much good – announcing long-term plans they will never implement – they can do much harm.

But this period is also bad for Labour. Roy Jenkins’ Yoda-like advice to the young Obi Wan-KenoBlair in the mid-1990s has now become weary through overuse, but it remains true: an opposition leader with a hefty poll lead is like a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a polished floor. That task is already hard and Keir Starmer has been at it for at least 18 months, since Tory support cratered after the Partygate revelations, the ousting of Boris Johnson and the debacle of Liz Truss. By ruling out 2 May, Sunak has made that walk across the shiny floor that much longer.

It’s messing with Labour heads. They have three or four different versions of “the grid”, where they schedule key policy announcements and the like, one for each potential election date. “It’s mind-mushing,” says one close Starmer adviser.

But the problems are more substantial than mere timetabling. For one thing, the longer this goes on, the more time the Conservatives have to steal what might have otherwise been defining campaign pledges for Labour. Labour cherished its extension of the windfall tax on the fossil fuel companies and had made its tax on non-doms totemic. In his budget last week, Jeremy Hunt nicked both.

Worse, the long goodbye to the Tories requires Labour to maintain the posture it has to adopt before every election – constant reassurance on those areas the party defines as its “core brand weaknesses”, namely the economy, national security and, more recently added, borders and immigration – for so long, the muscles start to ache.

In its quest to prove fiscal prudence, Starmer and his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, have already announced the halving of what had been billed as Labour’s big idea: an annual £28bn of green investment. The trouble is, the longer the election isn’t called, the more reassurance Reeves has to provide. Witness her response to that act of political larceny by Hunt. Reeves said that she would find the £2bn she had planned to take off non-doms to spend on the NHS and school breakfast clubs – and which Hunt diverted instead to a cut in national insurance – by cutting other spending. She couldn’t oppose Hunt’s NI cut; nor could she propose another tax in its place. The god of pre-election fiscal rectitude, devotion to which was forged by the experience of serial Labour defeat, demanded she shrink her spending plans instead.

And it can push even a trained, experienced economist such as Reeves to hint, as she did this month, at the old Thatcherite catechism that managing the public finances is like balancing the books in a household budget – a notion that enrages Keynesian social democrats who know that sometimes it makes sense for governments, unlike families, to spend their way out of a crisis.

The result is that Starmer and Reeves spend a lot of time telling voters what they won’t be able to do rather than what they will, the latter just last weekend explaining that a Labour government would not be able to “turn things around straight away”. I truly understand this need for reassurance, but it does come at a cost. Voters know the country is in desperate need of investment, massively and urgently. They know there is so much that doesn’t work or is cracking under the strain, whether its GP surgeries or the courts, mental health services or the transport system. When they hear Labour talk so cautiously when the situation is so severe, they either end up hoping that the party is lying just to get through till polling day – and that, once in office, they might do a Joe Biden and spend much more than they promised – or they give up hoping altogether.

It’s true that for Labour to win an election, it’s more important to generate trust among doubters than enthusiasm among supporters. I see that. But, if Labour does win, it will also need a mandate to act. If it keeps paring back an already modest offer in the name of reassurance, eventually there will be nothing left. It desperately needs this fag-end period to end. Election day cannot come soon enough – for Labour’s sake and the country’s.

  • Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

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