Champagne with Rupert Murdoch … Keir Starmer’s Labour is preparing for power | Labour

After 13 years of Conservative government it was, in the words of one guest, “an extraordinary, symbolic moment, like a changing of the guard”.

Rupert Murdoch was throwing a midsummer party at Spencer House, the palatial residence in St James’s, London, owned by Earl Spencer. Seated on a sofa in the middle of the main room, the 92-year-old media magnate was holding court with carefully chosen individuals of influence – five minutes at a time, strictly one to one. Cabinet ministers, MPs, media executives and others among the great and the good sipped Pol Roger champagne and admired the extravagant floral arrangements, wondering who would be next.

As the numbers swelled, one senior News Corp journalist was chatting away to former prime minister Liz Truss when he had to break off suddenly. His duty was to meet a special guest and bring him to Murdoch. A minute or so later, in swept Keir Starmer in an open-necked black shirt, ready for his audience with the most powerful media figure in the world.

“You go, don’t you?” was how Tony Blair, in his memoirs, described what to do when, as leader of a Labour opposition, an invitation arrived to meet Murdoch in “the lion’s den”.

One News Corp executive in London noted after the latest party that contact between Starmer, Murdoch and his top brass was by no means rare. In fact, Rupert and Keir had already had a “brush-by” at the News Corp CEO Summit earlier the same day.

Nor were their discussions always initiated by the Murdoch side. “We can’t keep him [Starmer] away,” said the source.

Last Wednesday, Starmer was unable to attend another summer media party of note, put on by the Conservative-supporting Spectator magazine in Westminster. The Labour leader was in Kent preparing to launch a new education policy the next day. Details of that story – Starmer’s plan to smash the “class ceiling” – were leaked that evening to Murdoch’s Times newspaper, which led its front page on Thursday with the headline “Speaking lessons for all pupils”. Courting the right-leaning media influencers was working a treat.

Despite Starmer’s absence, his team was well represented at the Spectator do, with several of his closest aides in attendance. Shadow cabinet members Wes Streeting and Jonathan Ashworth were also there, lapping up the attention. “People wanted to talk more to the Labour people than the Conservatives,” said one member of team Starmer after the event. “That tells you a lot.” Another senior MP who attended noted that nothing better illustrated how far Labour had come since the days of Jeremy Corbyn than his party’s heavy presence on such summer evenings where the champagne flows.

Sue Gray walking along in the street in a red coat carrying a coffee.
Sue Gray will help with preparations for government when she arrives in the autumn as Starmer’s chief of staff. Photograph: Tayfun Salcı/Zuma Press/Rex/Shutterstock

With his party far ahead in the opinion polls (15 points in today’s Opinium survey for the Observer, more in several others) Starmer and his people no longer have to try to generate media or corporate interest. Their challenge is to manage and control it as it grows, and maximise the opportunities it throws up.

For Starmer, the demands on his time are growing every day as a general election approaches, and as the Tories divide and disintegrate as a fighting force. “You can feel it now,” said a shadow cabinet member. “The media is preparing psychologically for a Labour government. Business is preparing for one, too. The Tories are preparing for defeat. Their focus now is on who comes next [after Sunak]. They are circling like sharks around him.”

If networking right across the political spectrum is part of the process of preparing for power, so too is maintaining discipline and keeping feet on the ground.

There is a nervousness at the top of Labour now that is mounting in parallel with rising expectations.

Over recent weeks, Starmer’s campaigns director, Morgan McSweeney, has been acting as “killjoy in chief”, studying political campaigns run by parties which were way ahead in the polls in the run-up to polling day, and were expected to win, then bombed and lost.

He has been passing the lesson on to everyone who matters at the top of the party, above all about the need to assume nothing and take nothing for granted – and to stay in touch with voters’ interests.

“People have been in our position before and lost, and we need to know why that is,” he says. McSweeney has been debriefing political figures who suffered the pain of three failed left-of-centre campaigns: Labour’s in 1992, when the party under Neil Kinnock was defeated by the Tories led by John Major (the infamous Sheffield rally being a lesson on its own); the Democrats under Hillary Clinton in 2016, who lost to Donald Trump’s Republicans; and the Australian Labor party’s defeat under Bill Shorten in 2019, when the minority Liberal-National Coalition government, led by prime minister Scott Morrison, secured a third term.

McSweeney points out Labour lost a seat last week to the Conservatives on Cambridge city council for the first time in years. This can be put down almost entirely to the Labour-run administration’s unpopular plans for a congestion charge in the city. One error can knock an entire campaign off course: that is the lesson from Cambridge.

On the practical planning front, young Labour advisers are now being given regular “preparation for government” advice sessions by staff who worked for ministers such as Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson in the New Labour administration. “There is a lot about how government works, what to expect,” said one Labour staffer.

This work will be stepped up when former civil servant Sue Gray takes up her post as Starmer’s chief of staff in the autumn.

Another Labour adviser said it was difficult at times to think ahead because of conflicting messages. “We are told so often to guard against complacency. Every week its about how we are not measuring the curtains [inside No 10]. You are told one minute to prepare, the next to assume nothing. It can be a bit disorientating.” While the Tories tear each other apart, discipline levels inside the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) are rising. Most people on the Corbynite left have long since departed or are now eyeing opportunities that could be in store if they stay quiet.

“There are lots of ostensibly ‘left’ members of the PLP who actually quite fancy being government ministers,” said one senior figure. “The prospect of winning v losing is what sharpens minds.”

Bill Shorten makes a resigned wave to supporters from a podium
Starmer’s team has studied Australian Labor leader Bill Shorten’s surprise defeat in 2019 as part of a plan to guard against overconfidence. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Another Labour staffer said the prize was too great for anyone with “half an ounce of sense” to rock the boat: “We have [not] been in as good a position as we are now for ages. That is partly because of the desperate state the Tories are in and partly because of good decisions by Keir. The fact of the matter is that, at this stage, no one wants to be the one who fucks this up.”

If there is a nagging doubt in Labour ranks, however – and it still exists among plenty at the top of the party – it is that the Starmer bandwagon may be something of an illusion, powered more by Tory failures and infighting than by any real vision that he or Labour has so far been able to offer in policy terms.

The party finds itself in the tricky position of having to prepare a policy programme that appeals widely, and that addresses the decay in public services after 13 years of Tory rule, when the economy is hardly growing and inflation and interest rates are both stubbornly high.

“The fact is there is no money,” says a shadow cabinet member.

“We have to deal with that, and make it the Tories’ fault – not set traps for ourselves as a result of their failures.”

There is also a defensiveness at the heart of much Labour strategy – most notable in its reluctance to talk about the failings of Brexit – that infuriates and depresses some of the party’s MPs.

For the few Tories who still have any hope that their party can win the next election, it lies in a feeling that Starmer will come across as vacuous and without vision when voters finally have to make their choice.

One former Tory cabinet member told the Observer: “Obviously, it should be Labour’s to lose now, but I still wonder how they deal with this central issue of what Starmer is about. He seems to lack a purpose, and that will look worse when there is no money.”

In recent weeks, with the economy so sluggish, Starmer and his shadow ministers have already had to rein back on expectations about how much they would be able to spend in government, and when – even on their core projects such as green investment.

“I am increasingly alarmed by the state of the economy,” said a senior shadow cabinet member. “This means we are having to be serious and honest with people and say we will have to rule out or delay things. It is a difficult message.”

For some, all this is unsettling. “There’s obviously been a process of tightening up and a whole set of policies, and so people just feel constrained,” said one influential figure on Labour’s left.

“At the moment, it has a weird effect. Keir does these speeches about his five missions. He’s then asked questions at the speeches about things that he’s not going to do – so the message coming out of them is often what Labour is ruling out. Maybe that’s what they want.”

In reality, Labour’s high command is indeed open about cutting back on any aspects of a policy programme that might be attacked by the Tories as unaffordable, and therefore irresponsible, in the run-up to an election. They believe the positives to be gained from being seen as responsible – particularly after the years of ill-discipline and chaos under Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss – outweigh the negatives of being accused of lack of ambition.

“We are trying to make sure the manifesto is as tight as possible,” one senior figure said. “It means that lots of the things the Tories will try and claim we are going to spend on, with the inevitable spending dossier, simply won’t be part of our policy platform.”

Shadow ministers are told week after week that there is no money by the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Pat McFadden. They are having to go away and come up with cost-free ideas because fiscal responsibility is the watchword.

This week, shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth will make a speech in which he will unveil plans to use artificial intelligence in the welfare system to increase efficiency and save public money at the same time.

As the summer break approaches, and Labour figures turn their minds to conference season in the autumn, they hope the public and the media – including outlets run by Murdoch – will buy the message.

“The public wants change,” says a shadow cabinet member. “But it also wants responsibility. That is the tightrope we are walking. It is not easy.”


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