Adam Boulton: Keir Starmer can equal Tony Blair in getting Labor to Number 10, but a heavy burden awaits him

There are still two and a half weeks to go.

The most used comparison of this campaign so far is about the challenge we face Lord Keir Starmer to lead Labor safely to victory in this general election. Politicians and pundits simply call it the ‘Ming Vase’ for short.

This is a reference to the 1997 election campaign and the last time a Labor leader seized the opportunity to end a long period of Conservative rule.

The analogy was coined by former Labor Grandee Roy Jenkins, who amused a Liberal Democrat dinner by comparing Tony Blair to a curator nervously carrying a priceless gossamer Ming vase across a freshly polished and deceptively smooth museum floor.

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Blair managed to perform the trick, despite almost believing it wasn’t possible.

‘Most of the time we lose’ is the eternal warning from Pat McFadden, who was then an adviser to Blair and is now Starmer’s campaign chief.

When he was allowed to view the election results, Lord Jenkins discovered that he did not like the china treasure. He had hoped for a narrow victory that would necessitate a progressive realignment, bringing together Labor and the Liberal Democrats.

But Labor won such a large majority that coalition partners were not needed.

Starmer is just as delicately poised today. Opinion polls and academic analysts suggest he is on course for a victory at least as big as Blair’s.

The Labor leader and his closest confidants may be the last people in the political world to agree.

This is not just a rejection of complacency. As he reminded his supporters Launch of the Labor Manifestoonly general elections count.

There is always a chance that a slip or a hit will cause the pot to fall and fall to the ground.

If Starmer wins, the size of the majority, if any, will determine what kind of government he can create.

The sweet victory enabled Blair to ignore or crush dissent within Labor and the unions. Cameron, May and Sunak, on the other hand, were all held hostage by factions on the warring Conservative benches.

One of the striking features of this extraordinary election campaign is the contrast between the two parties.

Labor has largely sided with Starmer and accepted the iron discipline he believes is necessary to reassure voters.

“This is a serious plan,” he told his supporters at the launch of his manifesto. “It’s not about rabbits from a hat, it’s not about pantomime, we’ve had that. I’m running to be prime minister, not as a candidate to lead the circus.”

The event in Manchester reminded me of New Labor 1997, albeit in more gloomy than optimistic times. The men and women in the audience were dressed in business suits, with red accents. And there was barely a ripple when a young female heckler was dismissed with the leader’s reprimand “we gave up being a protest party five years ago”.

Then he replaced Jeremy Corbyn as party leader.

Tory candidates please themselves

On the conservative side, it’s every man for himself.

Rishi Sunak is often a lost figure on the campaign trail, rarely accompanied by other senior figures or among large crowds. The candidates are doing themselves a favour, distributing leaflets that may not contain images of Sunak or the Tory logo and, at least in the case of Dame Andrea Jenkins, giving a place of honor to Nigel Farageleader of the rival Reform UK party.

There is still something about the mood of voters ‘on the doorstep’ that worries some Labor activists. Most of the people they survey agree that it is time for a change of government, but few of them are particularly enthusiastic about Labor or its leader.

This is a far cry from 1997, when the youthful Blair enjoyed near-pin-up status.

For all their nagging doubts, Labor strategists often mutter ‘boring is good’ after another dull performance from Sir Keir.

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They know that indifference to the leader may not stop Labor from achieving a big victory, provided the animosity against the Conservatives is fierce enough.

Whether or not a former Conservative voter chooses Labour, the Lib Dems or Reform, Labor is generally well placed to take the seat due to the strength of its grassroots vote.

Starmer’s safety-first approach means Labor is the mainstream party offering voters the fewest ‘bribes’.

The additional spending set out in the manifesto is the lowest of the three main parties and it is the only party that takes into account the certainty that taxes will rise, as well as their own package of targeted taxes, including VAT on private education and the abolition of non-doms.

Labour’s promises to match the Conservatives by not raising income tax, VAT and national insurance rates are another echo of New Labor in 1997.

Labour’s overall tax and spending package is more modest in size than that of their main rivals. According to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), Labour’s plans are “trivial”.

Read more:
Why were there no surprises in the Labor manifesto?
The Labor manifesto versus the rest
What are the party’s main promises?

The IFS also doubts Starmer’s hope that rapid economic growth will remove the need for cuts to unprotected departmental spending. Nevertheless, the Conservatives have struggled to make good on their claim that Labor will cut the average family an extra £2,000 in taxes during the next parliament.

An unusual aspect of this campaign is that according to opinion polls, Labor is still the most trusted when it comes to running the economy – a policy area that usually acts as a banker for the Tories.

A prime minister waiting

Labour’s slogan is ‘Change’. However, the change Starmer offers is a return to stability after what he calls ‘chaos’ among the Conservatives.

Starmer appeared at the launch and on the front of the manifesto in shirt sleeves but still wearing a tie, just like Blair.

Like Blair in 1997, his party presents him as a prime minister in waiting.

Their manifesto booklet is the only one with many photos of the leader in performative service. These include a photo with that of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky during the D-Day ceremony.

Rather than looking for a photo-op, Labor sources say Zelenskyy was looking forward to the meeting and considered it one of the most important in his Normandy diary.

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This side of election day, the biggest threat to Labor is that the polls are seriously wrong.

Starmer won’t slip up now.

Neither Starmer nor Blair are dancers, but as they walk across the shiny floor, the same theme tune plays in the background. Whether in hope or desperation, many voters appear to have decided that “things can only get better” if they make a change from the Conservatives.

Starmer may manage to carry the vase across the finish line. Once there, he will find himself holding a heavy burden.

Sky News

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