Sir Keir Starmer’s allies today attempted to blame the Covid pandemic for dismal results expected for Labour in tomorrow’s “super Thursday” elections amid warnings of a leadership challenge from the old Left.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Reynolds said Labour’s “big army of activists” had been kept at home, and argued that Sir Keir should not be blamed if the party slips backwards in its traditional heartlands.
Sir Keir and Boris Johnson hit the campaign trail for a final full day of meeting voters before tomorrow’s multiple elections, the biggest since 1973. Voters go to the polls in local councils, the Scotland Parliament and the Welsh Parliament, a series of mayoral battles and the Hartlepool by-election.
Although Labour looks set to do well in London, polls suggest the party is trailing by 17 points in Hartlepool, a former stronghold, and could lose council seats in former Red Wall areas. The Tories meanwhile face a rout in London but seem confident that their West Midlands mayor Andy Street will see off ex-Cabinet minister Liam Byrne.
Mr Reynolds said Sir Keir should stay on as Labour leader despite Left-wingers saying he might have to “consider his position”.
He told Sky News: “I think there’s no doubt that whatever our challenges, Keir Starmer is an asset to the Labour Party. He is someone the public sees as a potential prime minister, and we haven’t frankly always had that.”
He said Labour had been held back by social distancing rules that prevented traditional campaigning. “We’d have loved to have had the kind of mobilisation of our of our big army of activists that you usually have in elections like this, but that hasn’t been possible.”
He said the response on doorsteps was “warmer” but it would take more time to climb back from the catastrophic general election defeat of 2019. “I don’t think anyone thought we’d come back in a year and it would just bounce back, like some sort of pendulum swinging into place.”
The Prime Minister’s final push was overshadowed by fresh controversy about the expensive refurbishment of his flat in Downing Street. The Times reported that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case only found out about his botched attempts to use unnamed donors to pay for it via a charitable trust from reading a leak to the Daily Mail in February.
Mr Case then made inquiries and discovered that Lord Brownlow, a wealthy Conservative donor, had already approached senior peers to become trustees. The donations arrangement was recently described by Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former aide, as “possibly illegal”.
However, the refurbishment issue does not appear to have cut through to voters as much as the feelgood factor generated by the vaccine roll-out.
“The vaccine is going down very well on the doorstep,” said a Tory campaigner. Labour says Sir Keir has clocked up 7,500 miles during the campaign.
But one backbencher warned: “The Left are going to try to destroy him if we lose in Hartlepool and the West Midlands. It is going to be a battle.”