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Good morning. The big story in Westminster this week is the Labour party is abandoning its commitment to abolish tuition fees.
The story taking much of the oxygen is a load of old nothing about Keir Starmer hiring Sue Gray to be his chief of staff.
There’s a cautionary tale for political parties: if the Conservative party machine hadn’t spent a lot of time and energy this week trying to re-oxygenate the Gray story, then much more attention would be being paid to a story that really does show the Labour leader behaving shiftily. A lot of the time you are just better off letting the facts do the hard work for you. Some more thoughts on both stories below.
Inside Politics is edited today by Leah Quinn. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to [email protected]
Catch a fallen Starmer?
Keir Starmer has confirmed my old colleague Henry Zeffman’s Times scoop: he is going to abandon Labour’s commitment to abolish tuition fees in England, on which the party fought the 2017 and 2019 elections, and which Starmer himself committed to do during his bid for the 2020 leadership.
Part of the policy rationale is that the pledge costs £9.5bn, quite a lot of money for a party that is nervous about getting attacked as tax-raisers in the general election, and quite a lot of money given that the beneficiaries are largely in the top half of the income distribution.
But there are, I think, two political risks. The first is that while, as I’ve written before, cutting tuition fees or debt relief is ultimately an income tax by any other names in a UK context, it is an income tax targeted squarely at Labour’s liberal base and at affluent thirtysomethings who are otherwise not getting a whole lot back from the state.
Labour does not have much in the way of retail policy for this group. You can see the shape of where they are going to land for older voters — it will be healthcare and crime — but what are they going to offer the other half of their coalition? The Conservatives have matched them on childcare, and it is not obvious what it is that Labour is going to promise to do for these voters at the next election.
Keir Starmer’s Labour party is already at odds with these voters on drugs policy, and there is a real risk, I think, that Labour is not doing enough to accelerate the movement of liberal and graduate voters to the Labour tent. At the moment, if the polls are right (and we’ll get a pretty good steer on that in tomorrow’s elections), that doesn’t matter, because the Conservative party is doing the heavy lifting. But if I were a Labour strategist, it would worry me that I weren’t doing enough to act as a pull factor to anyone in particular at the moment.
The other political problem is that if I were a Conservative strategist I would want to make much more of Keir Starmer’s habit to abandon his pledges, because ultimately the Tory interest is best served by a personalised election that casts the next election as a choice between Rishi Sunak (the Conservative party’s best asset by a mile) and Keir Starmer. This story surely only adds grist to that particular mill.
There used to be a political operation over there
That said, the actual Conservative strategy at the moment is to talk a lot about a story that is, to my eyes, a load of old nothing: Keir Starmer hiring Sue Gray to be his chief of staff. The argument has two planks, both of which have severe limitations.
The first is that Starmer approached Gray while she was investigating the lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street. Starmer and Labour deny this, but that need not be a barrier to an effective political attack. Many things that politicians have denied — not least Downing Street’s lockdown-breaching parties — have turned out to be true.
It’s a bigger barrier that Gray’s report into the Downing Street parties went out of its way to produce as favourable a document as Boris Johnson could have hoped for. As I wrote in this newsletter at the time, her report was long on hope that Johnson had introduced reforms, and short on anything that Johnson’s rivals could use to bury him. As Rob Hutton wrote in a funny and astute piece for the Critic:
There is one scenario that would fit the available facts: Labour, desperate to keep the chaotic and toxic Johnson in Number 10 so as to completely destroy the Conservative party, induced Gray to water down her report so that he would survive. In return, she was promised a less secure job and a pay cut.
The second plank is that Sue Gray herself behaved improperly. I think the chances that anything is going to come of that can pretty accurately be gauged by first reading our report into the thin statement Oliver Dowden gave to the House of Commons in which he complained that Gray has not spoken to the civil service inquiry into her departure:
Oliver Dowden, the cabinet office minister, pulled his punches in an official statement to MPs on Tuesday, declining to say whether the inquiry had discovered that Gray had broken the civil service code. Dowden said that in order to maintain “confidentiality” towards Gray he could not give MPs further information about the circumstances of her appointment and when she first held talks with Labour officials.
And then by comparing that to this story about a speech Dowden gave in October 2021 in which he criticised his former permanent secretary, Sarah Healey, for saying that she liked being able to work on her Peloton while working remotely:
“I like my permanent secretary at DCMS enormously, Sarah Healey, but I am disagreeing with her on this one. I think people need to get off their Pelotons and get back to their desks. People really want the government to lead by example — they want civil servants to get back to work as well. We’ve got to start leading by example on that.”
Which is more likely? That Oliver Dowden really feels more constrained about what he can say in the House of Commons, where he enjoys parliamentary privilege, about an official who has since left, than he does about what he can say about a fairly innocuous remark by one of his officials? Or that there is not much there in the Gray story, just like there was not much there in ‘Currygate’?
I leave that one to you, but I would make two further remarks. The first is that the row over “civil servant leaves Whitehall to find another job”, something that Conservative civil service reformers want to happen is taking oxygen and attention from Starmer breaking his tuition fee promise.
The second is that it is also obscuring the fact that Sue Gray is no friend of transparent government, and that open government and freedom of information enthusiasts should be much more exercised over Starmer’s incoming chief of staff than they are.
In many ways, this row shows how Starmer has been lucky in his opponents thus far.
Now try this
I saw Return of the Jedi at the Curzon Mayfair this weekend. It really is something else on the big screen: the ill-conceived and ugly 1990s CGI additions are, well, ugly and ill-conceived, but the model work is beautiful and it really is a jewel of cinema.
The Curzon Mayfair is itself also a jewel of British cinematic history (recent premieres at the Curzon Mayfair include The Fabelmans and our own brilliant documentary Skandal! about the Wirecard fraud), but one that is now sadly under threat and facing an uncertain future. If you can visit it, you really should.