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Electoral earthquakes beget political revolutions. Clement Attlee’s crushing defeat of Winston Churchill in 1945 heralded the creation of Britain’s welfare state. Margaret Thatcher’s 144-seat majority in 1983 signalled a counter-revolution to roll back the frontiers of nationalisation. The three consecutive terms ushered in by Sir Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide upturned his party’s historical role as an occasional interlude between Tory administrations.

The baton has passed to Sir Keir Starmer. There is, though, an important difference. Blair proclaimed a shining new dawn. The new prime minister prefers understatement. He is promising a restoration as much as a revolution.

Democracies across the west have been destabilised by the flight of voters to the far-flung fringes of right and left. Donald Trump is mounting a new bid for the White House. France is closer than it has ever been to its first far-right government since the Vichy regime during the second world war. In Britain, Starmer is offering “serious” government — a return to centrist sobriety. “Public service is a privilege,” he said on Friday outside 10 Downing Street.

The parliamentary arithmetic of his victory matches any achieved by these postwar predecessors. This election though was as much a defeat for the Conservatives as a victory for what Starmer has called “Changed Labour”. Tory voters stayed at home or backed the anti-immigrant populists of Nigel Farage’s Reform party. Measured by seats in the House of Commons, Rishi Sunak’s party has fallen further than at any time in its history.

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Britain’s parliament now has a solid moderate majority. Add the 71 seats won son far by the Liberal Democrats — a record since the party was displaced by Labour a century ago — to Labour’s tally of 411 and centrists can claim approaching 500 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons.

The country, it seems, had its populist rush of blood to the head when it voted in the 2016 referendum to leave the EU. For Boris Johnson, Brexit prefaced a wider assault on the nation’s democratic institutions and norms. The judges, the BBC, the civil service, the economic establishment — all were labelled enemies of the people. Starmer’s stated mission starts with putting the pieces back together.

The voters’ determination to throw out the Conservatives was palpable. Johnson had proclaimed that Brexit would deliver freedom and untold riches, a swashbuckling “Global Britain” on the threshold of a new Elizabethan age. The delusions and bluster were no antidote to the economic stagnation, falling living standards, and failing public services that followed. Post-Brexit trade deals with the likes of the US and India never materialised. Mistrusted in Europe, Britain was shunned in Washington. Voters notice these things.

1924: Stanley Baldwin

Stanley Baldwin sits at his desk

The Conservatives, who were led by Baldwin, won a majority of 209 in an election where the Liberals were reduced to the third party in British politics

With another set of leaders, the Conservatives might have claimed to have fallen victim to the Covid pandemic and the global energy shock delivered by Russia’s war against Ukraine. What turned the nation so viscerally against the party was the contempt it showed for the electorate. Johnson’s habitual mendacity, parties in Downing Street during Covid lockdowns and his insouciant disregard for rules observed by everyone else delivered the first blow. Liz Truss, whose brief premiership bore comparison with the shelf-life of a supermarket lettuce, blew up what remained of her party’s reputation for economic competence.

Chosen to steady the ship, Sunak had neither the vision nor the authority to command a party more interested in fighting with itself. By the end he had lost both the “Red Wall”, working class voters who backed the party in 2019 and its traditional, more liberal supporters in the affluent south of the country.

Recovery from such a calamity will not be easy, not least because the party’s remaining 121 MPs have still to decide whether they want to be the English nationalist party that emerged from Brexit or whether they want to rebuild the broad coalition that long kept it in office. Even before Farage’s populist party had claimed 14 per cent of the vote and five seats in the House of Commons, Sunak’s critics on the Tory right were accusing him of an excess of moderation. Brexit, they still claim against all evidence, could be a success. Sunak’s mistake was not to follow through by leaving the European Convention on Human Rights or by leading the culture wars against so-called liberal elites. All the signs are that a long civil war lies ahead.

On the face of it all this leaves Starmer with a free run. The tumult in western democracies makes it dangerous to peer into the future with much certainty — not so long ago Emmanuel Macron was hailed as France’s new Sun King — but on any traditional estimation, the prime minister’s majority would give him an option on a second, and even perhaps a third, term. It is no accident that senior Labour figures are talking about a “decade of renewal”. An impregnable majority for one parliament, they understand, will not fix a badly weakened economy or repair the decay of public services during 14 years of Conservative government.

1945: Clement Attlee

Violet and Clement Attlee wave in celebration

Labour won a majority of 145 seats on the back of Attlee’s plan to rebuild Britain after the second world war, including creating the NHS

Starmer, a lawyer by profession and a moderate by temperament, has been cautious at every turn. Playing it safe was understandable enough after the trauma of the party’s lurch leftward under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. But the scale of his majority carries its own problems. Many in his party will press for greater ambition. If the country has woken up to the reality that Brexit was an egregious act of self-harm, they will ask, why does the prime minister set his face so firmly against rebuilding the bridges with Britain’s most important economic partners.

The nation will also be impatient to see promised change — shorter NHS waiting lists, an effective strategy to control the numbers of “small boats” migrants crossing the Channel, more new houses. The Reform party took most of its support from disgruntled Tories. But the concerns feeding Farage’s populism among left-behind voters are also keenly felt among those who backed Labour. The Conservatives have been crushed, but support for the new government is much shallower than it is wide. Starmer will be conscious that he has won nearly two-thirds of the seats in parliament with only a little more than a third of the votes.

Restoring competence and integrity to the business of government will be an important help. So too will normalising Britain’s relationships with its European neighbours and revive its reputation in Washington. Economic success is built upon confidence. If it is to meet its promise of faster growth, the government will need new private investment. Investors, at home and overseas, look, above all, for predictability. These things, though, take time to show results, as will much-needed regulatory changes to reduce the burden on business.

1983: Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher waves from the window of Conservative party headquarters after winning

Buoyed by victory the year before in the Falklands war, Thatcher won her second election with a majority of 144 seats

Much less obvious is how Starmer will reconcile his sackcloth-and-ashes approach to public borrowing and debt with the intense pressures for public funds and his manifesto promises not to increase the main rates of taxation. The demands for additional funds will come from every direction — the NHS and social care, housing, the police and criminal justice system, defence, immigration control, and the drive to net zero head the list. Something, as they have been saying in the corridors of the Treasury, will have to give.

The prospects are not all bad. The economy has likely fallen about as far as it can, the Bank of England has got a grip on inflation and Britain now looks like an island of political stability amid the tumult in some parts of Europe. Ultimately, the success or otherwise of the new moderation will depend on the character of the prime minister. Starmer enters Downing Street loaded with the political capital that comes with complete mastery of the House of Commons. A natural instinct for caution may well encourage him to hoard it. He will succeed only if he is prepared to invest it.

Attlee secured his place in history because the welfare state became a permanent and — in the case of the NHS — hallowed feature of Britain’s political economy. Thatcher’s redrawing of the boundaries of the state likewise survived the vicissitudes of subsequent elections. For his part, Blair persuaded his party and the country that the market economy and social justice need not operate in permanent opposition.

1997: Tony Blair

Cherie and Tony Blair wave to wellwishers after Labour’s victory in 1997

Labour’s most successful leader won the first of three election victories with a 179 majority, bringing to an end 18 years of Conservative government

History may well judge Starmer’s premiership by whether it manages to rebuild what the Conservatives have in recent years done their best to pull down — integrity in public life, respect for the rule of law, trust in the nation’s institutions and regard for Britain abroad.

His government’s political success or failure will depend on whether it can navigate a path that balances two things: the pressing demands of voters for decent, well-funded public services that widen the spread of opportunity beyond the nation’s great cities to stranded provincial towns; and tight limits on public borrowing and an ingrained reluctance of the electorate to pay higher taxes.

Meeting this latter challenge scarcely has the ring of what the French would call un grand projet. Starmer is not that sort of politician, but then how else to turn back the tide of populism?



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