Starmer stands supreme but he cannot ignore the Reform surge

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Don’t allow the predictability to underwhelm you. Sir Keir Starmer has led Labour to a monumental victory, upending the UK’s political landscape as voters delivered a punishment beating to the Conservatives. British politics is about to change utterly.

It is a measure of how far the Conservatives have fallen that the probability of them winning more than 100 seats will almost have felt like a relief. After six excruciating weeks, the worst defeat in the party’s history came in at the higher end of expectations.

The inquests will be brutal but the explanation is devastatingly simple and has little to do with Rishi Sunak’s hopeless campaign and his foolish decision to gamble on an early election. The public responded with disgust and contempt towards a government they associated with incompetence and chaos. Whether the issue was tax, public services or immigration, the party was judged to have failed them.

Notable Tory figures fell with stunning regularity throughout the night. Among them were Grant Shapps, the defence secretary; Alex Chalk, justice secretary; Gillian Keegan, the education secretary; Penny Mordaunt, leader of the Commons and a favourite to be next party leader; Johnny Mercer, the veterans minister; and Simon Hart, chief whip.

Starmer will now be the nation’s dominant political figure. Furthermore, if the exit poll is right, Labour’s landslide will also have shored up the Union by reducing the Scottish National party to a rump at Westminster.

In the campaign, the Labour leader painted his agenda as long-term, talking often of a “decade of renewal”. But the nature of his victory should serve as a warning that he may not enjoy the stability that prime ministers can usually expect after a landslide win and that he cannot count on having that long to show real progress.

This is not to take away from his achievement in returning Labour to electability. The party’s turnaround has been remarkable and it is testament to Starmer’s determination, ruthlessness and strategic discipline.

But Labour’s share of the vote would not normally deliver anything close to a landslide. There is much talk of the greater efficiency of the party’s vote but the scale of his win owes much to a huge split on the right, Liberal Democrat successes in Tory seats and, most of all, to the desire to be rid of the outgoing Conservative government.

The contrast between Labour’s share of the vote and share of the seats at Westminster will again draw attention to the weaknesses of the UK’s electoral system, although the difference is that for once those feeling aggrieved are on the right. Nor was Starmer’s night all plain sailing. His close ally Jonathan Ashworth lost his seat to a pro-Gaza independent while Wes Streeting, shadow health secretary, hung on by a whisker against a similar challenge. Thangam Debbonaire, shadow culture secretary, fell to the Greens.

Yet what will — or should — worry Labour most is Nigel Farage’s Reform UK party, which looks set to get a toehold in parliament, albeit less of one than the exit poll first suggested. More significant is the large number of seats where Reform is likely to be in second place and where, next time, it will be the main challenger to sitting Labour MPs.

This could materially change the nature of the Labour government because there will suddenly be many Labour MPs looking at the threat from the nationalist right in an era where voters are consistently more volatile. This may well check some progressive instincts — a more liberal approach to prisoner releases for example — but it also means Starmer cannot take his decade for granted. He will feel the pressure to move faster to deliver the change, especially on the NHS and public services, that he has loudly but unspecifically promised.

But while the threat to Labour is long-term — and will only materialise if the split on the right shows signs of healing — Reform’s vote share poses a more immediate existential crisis for the Tories. And Farage will be emboldened to replace, rather than seek a pact with, the Conservatives.

The Tories must now decide whether to try to move to reunify the right vote, marginalising Reform by stealing their policies, or whether they have simply been punished for their failings in office. If the latter, they may feel they can reclaim support by staying in the centre-right and rebuilding trust as Labour loses popularity. The unfortunate truth for whoever emerges as the next Tory leader is that they probably need to do a bit of both. But the first-order issue is to begin the process of looking like a serious alternative government.

But for now that is a sideshow. Starmer has a chance to show voters that moderate mainstream government can deliver for them on the economy and public services. For all the arguments about political positioning, these are the issues that really matter to voters. For the first time in more than a decade, the UK has a stable, centre-left government led by an understated but patently serious premier. After the chaos of recent years, it may take some time for everyone to adjust.

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