Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
Glenholm Park, Crook, Co. Durham
Bubbles are not so much de rigeur at present but, sadly, de jure. But there’s nothing like constituency surgery calls, the caseworker inbox, or bumping into constituents on street to puncture the echo-chamber that journalists, politicians and the twitterati exist in.
The streets of North West Durham have a short and a clear message, and it has the feel of the one that the Admiralty messaged the Fleet in 1939. I’ll bet my bottom dollar that Westminster will soon hear it loud and clear in polling too. It’s a three-word phrase that could have come out of a ‘explain the policy in three words’ machine and it is: ‘Boris is back’.
A corner has been turned. The vaccine programme and getting Brexit done with a deal – and in the North East, the news from Nissan that they now see it as an opportunity rather than a catastrophe – have changed the mood. The parliamentary inbox is no longer awash with people concerned about when their gran will get the jab. Instead, it’s back to the more everyday concerns.
And if the Prime Minister is back, it’s also clear that Keir Starmer is on the back foot. I’m even getting emails from constituents critical of the way that the Opposition is behaving with its weak attempts at political point-scoring over covid. Whether the Conservative Campaign HQ phrase “Captain Hindsight” is cutting through or not, I’m not sure, but as one former Labour-voting pro-Brexit constituent bluntly put it to me on Friday: “I don’t know about hindsight, but Starmer don’t half talk a lot of sh**e. Wasn’t he the one who was the most pro-EU of Team Corbyn?”
And it’s the joining together of the UK vaccine programme, the EU vaccine row, and Starmer’s previous pro-Second Referendum EU position, that is most damaging for Labour at present. It is starting to feel as though the moderate Remain voter has shifted from: “I voted to Remain, but we have to honour the referendum result” to “I’m actually glad we’re out – look at the way they’re trying to treat us, can you imagine if we were in their EU vaccine programme?”
By any stretch, Labour should be gaining ground purely by the virtue of not being led by Jeremy Corbyn. But under Starmer, Labour seem paralysed. Unable or unwilling to engage on any policy level at all with voters beyond demanding more spending on, well, everything. The only concrete policy that Labour’s leader seems to have adopted is the absurd position of putting vaccinating healthy 25 year-old-teachers against Covid-19, ahead of 69 year olds who might actually get seriously ill or die from it.
One of the things that struck me most the day after the general election was Boris Johnson’s measured response. It wasn’t triumphalist or promising the earth: it was very much ‘I am humbled by the trust you’ve placed in me. I will seek to prove to your that you were right in doing so.’
On Brexit and on the vaccine programme, the Prime Minister and his team are delivering. Of course there have been sticky points during the last year – not least his own illness – but people also understand that dealing with a global pandemic isn’t easy. The next steps are crucial in responding to the post-pandemic need to get public finances in order, deliver good jobs in a reviving economy and making significant progress on the levelling up agenda.
While Labour continue not to offer anything – bar telling people they were wrong for voting for Brexit; that their area is awful; that their lives are awful, and that only Labour can help them – Conservatives have a real opportunity to make further progress.
The Government is making the running on everything from tacking rough sleeping, to NHS funding to a future, greener economy, to Global Britain: it seems Labour don’t know where to turn. The internal battles on Labour’s National Executive Committee over a combination of Corbyn’s membership of Labour and how woke can you can go continue to dominate Labour politics. Starmer is in danger of doing to the former ‘Red Wall’ in Wales, the North and the Midlands what Miliband did to it in Scotland.
This provides a genuine opportunity, regardless of what happens in the council elections in May – a traditional point to grumble mid-term – and it’s vital that CCHQ see this and target to gain further parliamentary seats in the Blue Wall.
The Prime Minister is back, let’s ready the Fleet. If we get our post-Covid-19 strategy right, 2019 can be just the beginning.