Conservatives falter while Labour reshuffles: a look ahead at the 2024 elections

By Peter Cardwell, Senior Counsel

Westminster is only just ‘back-to-school’ and already the Education Secretary has been told off for swearing, Rishi Sunak is battling to keep his class under control, Keir Starmer has moved the troublemakers to the back of the room (and his star, Blairite, pupils forward) and there is nothing if not a steep learning curb ahead for all in a classroom whose concrete is crumbling.

The autumn is filled with many predictable political events, such as the autumn statement from Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, political conferences for Labour and the Conservatives in Liverpool and Manchester respectively, the first King’s speech proper, to say nothing of the many political unknowables such as the timing of a potential wider Government reshuffle after just two new Cabinet ministers last week.

It’s been a dramatic few days in UK politics, seeing far more change that meets the naked eye.  Whilst the concrete in schools issue appeared to come out of nowhere for the Government, the warnings had been in place for some time.  As a former special adviser to the Housing Secretary, building safety was the issue that kept me awake at night.  In a post-Grenfell context the Government should have dealt with this key issue better and been better prepared.  Saying that, having been in Government, you are told on a daily basis about 10 issues which might dominate the news agenda and become a huge problem.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred they do not.  But the Government, and its hot mic-prone Education Secretary Gillian Keegan -- who has been lucky to keep her job this week – need to fire all cylinders at this massive problem immediately.

The brilliant Times cartoon in Tuesday’s paper by Morten Morland showing the Cabinet room crumbling and being held up with scaffolding poles is an unfortunate metaphor for how it feels for many about Rishi Sunak’s administration at the moment.  Having worked hard to being stable -- perhaps even boring -- Government back, this arresting visual metaphor will chime on the one-year anniversary of the first day of Liz Truss’s disastrous stay in Downing Street.  The task now for Rishi Sunak is to get a grip, but also to give people not just the competence they want from their Government, but some hope too.

That’s the task for Sir Keir Starmer too.  His shadow cabinet reshuffle will hardly set the world alight, but it is a much-needed reset of his top team.  Blairites have been rewarded, others have been sanctioned.  But the first lesson of Labour’s shadow cabinet reshuffle is to never, ever underestimate the importance of Pat McFadden to the Labour Party.  Dull, even dour, McFadden may not be the world’s best communicator, but he is a superb backroom operator and is trusted to get Labour shape for the election as national campaign coordinator.  An arch-moderniser who worked for John Smith, McFadden joins five Blair-era former special advisers, including the talented Peter Kyle, who have been brought into or promoted in Starmer’s shadow cabinet.  As one MP told The Times’s Patrick Maguire: “Even Tony Blair didn’t have this many Blairites in his cabinet.”

The Labour shadow cabinet reshuffle is also an indication of the declining importance – both to opposition and Government – of two previously huge political issues: international development and levelling up.  Angela Rayner supporters are cock-a-hoop she has been given the levelling up shadow portfolio. Her interactions with Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove in Parliament will be absolutely box office.

Rayner is also now deputy prime minister, not just deputy leader of the Labour Party.  But the reality, from a policy and political priority perspective, is the formerly front-and-centre agenda of levelling up – a key tenet of the ‘unleash Britain’s potential’ secondary line, mostly forgotten, of the Conservatives’ ‘Get Brexit done’ mantra in the 2019 election – is no longer a priority.  With Lisa Nandy, who was Shadow Foreign Secretary in Starmer’s first shadow cabinet, let’s remember, demoted to shadow international development minister, this is a serious fall from high (shadow) office for the MP.  The move of Steve Reed, an excellent media performer, to shadow environment does show, however, how seriously Labour is taking the issue, and with battles ahead over Ulez, Net Zero and associated issues, Reed’s star will continue to rise.

For Rishi Sunak, the task is great, not just at home, but abroad too.  He heads this week to the G20 summit in India. There he will try to finally secure a trade deal with the country, where his predecessors, Johnson and Truss, failed.

Concurrently, work is ongoing on the Prime Minister’s Conference speech, as he looks to galvanise the party faithful and those of his MPs who are resigned to losing the next election.  His chief of staff Liam Booth-Smith and political secretary James Forsyth, will hold the pen on this.  Labour are in Liverpool a few days later, where the watchwords remain caution and unity.  Issues such as Ulez, trans right and the two-child benefit cap have divided the party and put the leader at odds with some senior figures, notably in Scotland, where Labour must win big if they are to win a national majority.

With new cabinet teams in place and battle lines set, both leaders will then quickly face their first test. Two by-elections will give an almost instant answer to what the country thinks and where each party stands.  Labour will be hoping to win both Mid-Bedfordshire (though will face a tough fight with the Lib Dems) and Rutherglen & Hamilton.

Mid-Bedfordshire, previously held by Nadine Dorries, is supposedly safe, with a near 25,000 majority. But with Conservative defeats in Selby and then Somerton two months ago, where Labour and the Liberal Democrats respectively overturned similar true blue seats, means nothing can be taken for granted. CCHQ strategists will hope that Labour and the Liberal Democrats knock each other out, with neither willing to stand aside for the other this time, splitting the anti-Tory vote.

In Scotland, former MP Margaret Ferrier lost Rutherglen for having travelled down to London by train during Covid when she had tested positive. The seat has switched from SNP to Labour three times in the last three elections.

New SNP leader Humza Yousef is also under pressure. Since he took over from Nicola Sturgeon, his party has been shrouded in a financial scandal and torn up by infighting and the many failures of their time in Scottish government.

Even if Labour wins and it all goes badly for Sunak, things can still get worse. The King’s Speech in November gives the Government the chance to set out new laws to meet its promises.

To stop rising prices, the Prime Minister had promised to halve inflation by the New Year. It is slowing but not fast enough and he might not keep his word. Things continue to get more expensive and people are still struggling. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement will be fascinating in this context, with just a few weeks at that stage until his boss is judged on his five pledges.

Another of the Sunak's these is proving hard to meet. Hundreds of people continue to cross the Channel every week. Sunak is waiting hear from the Supreme Court this autumn on whether the Rwanda solution is legal.  And this is to say nothing of the 7.6m on an NHS waiting list – a family member in one of every three homes.

All of this will set the context for a fascinating 2024, an election which, on current polling, the Conservatives will lose, and the kaleidoscope of UK politics perhaps being shaken, dramatically, yet again.

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