The only champagne corks being popped at the result of the ballot that decided the prime minister’s fate were not in Downing Street – they were a mile away at Labour’s HQ.
But party officials are now deeply divided about how to approach the next phase of attack against their wounded opponent.
No matter their public exhortations that Johnson must go for the good of the country, there is a broad consensus among Labor MPs that Johnson is a major asset for the Labor party – and the data seems to prove that analysis.
There is no social group that trusts the prime minister – even Conservatives. Labor is leading trust on almost all policy measures, including the economy. Under the latest YouGov MRP poll, the Conservatives are set to lose 85 out of 88 Labour-facing seats.
But there is also a fear that Labour’s comfortable polling is now dependent on Johnson, rather than the party making its own weather. Keir Starmer’s speech after the result of the MPs’ no-confidence ballot barely registered.
Tories jostling to ditch Johnson are not doing so because they are fearful of a formidable opponent – they believe that Johnson is the only leader that Starmer could beat.
Allies of Starmer say the no-confidence vote must now mark a definitive break in Labour’s strategy. The path splits in two different directions – with no consensus in Starmer’s team on how to proceed.
The most obvious way forward is to fundamentally tarnish the Conservative brand by association with Boris Johnson, to put the prime minister front-and-centre of Labor leaflets and to enforce disciplined messaging among Labor MPs to constantly refer to “Boris Johnson’s Conservatives”.
The strategy would play out similarly to how the Conservatives tarnished Labor MPs by association with Jeremy Corbyn in the “red wall” – no matter how vehemently some had campaigned for him to be replaced.
That strategy worries some of the more politically savvy MPs who say they are now convinced that Johnson’s position is terminal and that he will be inevitably replaced before the next election.
They favor a plan to convince the public that Labor is the party of change – and that Johnson and whoever his successor may be representing a continuation of a stale old Tory brand. They argue MPs must emphasize a refrain on the cost of living and faltering public services which always begins: “After 12 years of Tory government…”
That strategy also has its critics – focus groups have told Labor researchers that they simply do not see Johnson’s government as a continuation of more of the same. The exit from the EU and Johnson’s premiership marked such a shift that many voters see this more like a government’s first term in office – with some suggesting that means they should be given another chance. That is a clear danger zone for Labour.
The summer ahead will mean many difficult challenges for Labor – even if Durham police do not bring about an unexpected leadership campaign by forcing Starmer’s removal.
The party has had its clothes stolen by Rishi Sunak on the windfall tax and policy advisers are struggling to come up with something similarly eye-catching for the summer campaign.
The messaging over the summer will need to culminate in Keir Starmer’s most important party conference speech to date – when the focus will no longer be on internal reforms and eyes will be firmly on the next election and on defining ‘Starmerism’. The test for Labor is whether the party can be confident enough to find that voice, with or without the help of Johnson.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism