It was the late Roy Jenkins in the run-up to the 1997 general election, who shrewdly compared Tony Blair to a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor.
The former Labour leader was edging towards a colossal victory and was terrified that a slip up would destroy his poll lead and the priceless prospect of becoming PM.
Fast forward more than two decades, and the same charge is being levelled at the current Labour leader after a set of election results in England which makes the prospect of Sir Keir Starmer following in Mr Blair’s footsteps into Number 10 an even more distant prospect than it was before.
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One of his allies this week raised the Jenkins anecdote in exasperation at Sir Keir’s lawyerly caution. “He’s a leader – so focused on detoxifying Labour with voters that he dares not put a foot wrong. He doesn’t want to mess it up. He understands the scale of the challenge, but then he operationalises as if he’s the one carrying the Ming vase across an ice rink.”
But the results on Thursday have shattered any honeymoon Sir Keir had with the Labour Party as well as any illusion he and his team might be under, that his safety first approach to opposition will work.
Loss upon loss piled up to paint an almost hopeless picture for Labour. Hartlepool was just the tip of the iceberg as councils across the country turned blue too – from Northumberland to Nuneaton and Dudley. The Tees Valley mayoralty was held by the Conservatives with a hugely increased margin.
While Boris Johnson embarked on a tour of his new territory in the West Midlands and Hartlepool, Sir Keir remained holed up in London. There was no victory lap to be had anywhere in the country.
It is true the vaccine bounce is real. It’s true too that the Brexit dividend is still paying out for Mr Johnson, with the Conservative vote share up most in areas that voted decisively to leave.
You remember in 2019 when Mr Johnson thanked voters along the Red Wall for “lending” him their vote?
These elections confirm that support is being freely given, that the redrawing of the electoral map in that Brexit election was not just a blip. Brexit turbocharged an underlying shift of working class communities, which have been de-industrialised, alienated and wanting change, away from Labour to vote Conservative for the first time.
And for those voters in places like Hartlepool, it is the party that has been in power for 11 years but never actually represented these parts that is seen as the catalyst for change and renewal.
Labour is then left with the double blow of losing its Red Wall seats in England to the Conservatives, while in Scotland the SNP has stolen its support. It’s often noted that there’s no route to Number 10 for a Labour leader that doesn’t require the support of the Scots.
No Labour leader has ever become prime minister without winning over half of Scotland’s 59 seats. Labour has just one.
Victory then looking impossible even before you throw in the (semi-permanent?) collapse of the Red Wall. Tory blue is creeping across all of England bar our major cities.
Labour may be attracting urban and younger voters but they do not come even close to plugging these emerging and yawning gaps in its voting coalition.
Sir Keir Starmer says he’s “bitterly disappointed” and he will take “full responsibility for fixing” what is going wrong. He argues Labour has changed as a party but has yet to set out a case to the country. He insists he’ll do “whatever is necessary” to win back the trust of working people in towns like Hartlepool.
So next up will be the battle within Labour to agree what the fix is. The Labour left want him to adopt the radical policies of the Corbyn era, arguing that the policies were always popular. The centrists and Blairites will argue that that page has been turned and Sir Keir mustn’t look back.
Change will start with reshuffling his shadow cabinet in the coming days. But he also needs to reinvent himself. Mr Blair didn’t want to smash the Ming vase for fear of what he could lose. Sir Keir doesn’t have much more to lose. It’s time to take more risk.
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