During lockdown Everton beat Liverpool 2-0 at Anfield for the first time this century. When the fourth official indicated that there were three minutes of stoppage time to be played, my brother-in-law jumped up in celebration.
I quickly chastised him, telling him that the game wasn’t over yet – even two goals to the good, and into the dying embers of the game, I still feared that Everton would throw the match away.
What has this got to do with the price of fish? Well, the Labour Party has only won one General Election this century. And even with a 20-point poll lead under the leadership of Keir Starmer, the Labour troops are far from convinced that the next General Election is a foregone conclusion – and with good reason.
Last year ended with huge question marks hanging over Rishi Sunak’s premiership. He had been selected by Tory MPs, disenfranchising Conservative Party members who, just weeks earlier had rejected him, favouring Liz Truss. He was also the second PM to be elevated to the top job without the consent of the country in this parliament.
Boris Johnson was clearly still on manoeuvres, his Red Wall was less than impressed by his ‘Levelling Up’ announcements, and the dull, if necessary, messaging, about financial stability over tax cuts was as welcome to many Tory backbenchers as Rafa Benitez was at Goodison Park. (For non-football followers, as welcome as Nigel Farage would be at a Labour Party rally).
However, in recent weeks, Sunak has started to bounce back. The Labour taunts of him being weak are struggling to break through in the aftermath of the PM facing down the Tory Spartans and delivering the ‘Windsor Agreement’ – a deal with the EU that few thought was possible. If that deal holds, he can claim to have ‘got Brexit done’.
The economy and cost-of-living crisis is not shifting yet, but all the indications are that inflation will fall, industrial disputes are slowly but surely dissipating, and economic forecasts have become a little more positive. If the conflict in Ukraine could be resolved, the whole world, not just the UK, will feel a whole lot better.
Then there is the small boats issue. I may find the rhetoric being used by the Home Secretary Suella Braverman offensive. I may also doubt the effectiveness of the measures she is looking to introduce. However, the narrative of her and her boss at number 10 chimes favourably with many of the electorate – not least those Red Wall voters.
Labour inevitably struggles to get its messaging right on this issue. Defenders of those asylum seekers who we have a duty, as part of the international community, to support, can easily be painted as support for the spike in illegal Algerian economic migrants into the UK. Yvette Cooper, Labours shadow Home Secretary, has to come up with a more convincing case that enables her party to sound tough on illegal immigration, and on the side of the angels when it comes to welcoming genuine asylum seekers.
So, on the EU, potentially on the economy, certainly on immigration, Sunak has had a good start to the New Year. If he can keep his own troops in check, it would be daft to write off Rishis election chances just yet. And most in the Labour Party know it.