KEIR Starmer’s silence and rictus grin, as he left his London home to run the media gauntlet following last week’s raft of bad election results for Labour in England, said it all.

By contrast, Boris Johnson on his victory visit to Hartlepool was in high spirits, joking as he met a 30ft inflatable version of himself and, like fellow national incumbents Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland and Mark Drakeford in Wales, enjoying the electoral afterglow of a vaccine bounce.

Declaring what mattered was delivery on the ground, the Prime Minister insisted he had dedicated his government to the “massive project” of “uniting and levelling up” the country.

“Number one is continuing the vaccine rollout,” declared Mr Johnson, “making sure we go from jab to jab, to jab to jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Despite all the political bruises he has suffered in the past weeks, and will doubtless suffer again in the coming ones, voters south of the border sought, for now, to support the Conservatives’ positive message of jabs and jobs.

Amid the blight of the pandemic, it was a triumph of hope over despair and not only resulted in the Tories’ astonishing win in Hartlepool, which elected its first Conservative MP for 57 years, but a landslide victory for their candidate Ben Houchen, who was returned as mayor for Tees Valley, yet another former Labour heartland.

While there were a few red shoots in England, the overall theme was one of Tory gains and consolidation from Essex to Northumberland.

As the Labour losses piled up it did not take long for the recriminations to set in.

Not surprisingly, Jeremy Corbyn led the charge, suggesting his successor had been “offering nothing” only insipid support to the Tory Government while John McDonnell, the former Shadow Chancellor, accused his party leader of sending candidates into battle “almost naked” without a full policy programme.

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The union barons also piled into Sir Keir with alacrity. Unite’s Len McCluskey complained: “People don’t know what his vision is. People don’t know what Labour stand for anymore.”

Meanwhile from the party’s centre, the wily Sultan of Spin popped up to insist the defeat in his former manor of Hartlepool was down to the long shadows of Covid and Corbyn.

Lord Mandelson, who admitted to “mild fury” at the by-election defeat, declared: “We have not won a general election in 16 years,” and pointedly noted: “We have lost the last four with 2019 a catastrophe. The last 11 general elections read: lose, lose, lose, lose, Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose, lose.”

Brexit doubtless had an effect, particularly in Hartlepool, where more than 70% of voters had opted for Leave. It is clear the tranche of voters, who Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party won over, chose to support the Tories rather than Labour.

But Brexit was not the only reason for the Conservatives’ wins. Time and again as the electoral dust settled, voters in northern England insisted they had for years been taken for granted by Labour. Sound familiar?

Northerners insisted Labour politicians had not listened to their concerns while the Tories went beyond the old Left-Right divide and put community investment at the forefront of their campaign.

The real fear for Sir Keir and his strategists in Labour HQ must be that what happened to the party in Scotland over two decades is now happening in northern England. Those areas, once described as heartlands from the industrial past, have lost heart with Labour.

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One Opposition frontbencher admitted the by-election result had sparked “full-on panic” among Labour MPs, fearful their seats could be at risk at the next general election.

Wales was a different story. Mr Drakeford defied the pollsters and led Welsh Labour to gain 30 seats, equalling its best ever result, and ensuring its 22-year unbroken run in power will continue.  

The different outcome for Labour in Wales simply underlined how this has become a disunited kingdom with voters across three nations taking different approaches to the choices before them.

Of course, Conservative consolidation south of the border will only play into the Nationalist narrative north of it; that Scotland and England are increasingly drifting apart politically and there is only one solution to resolve this.

It is intriguing how, in England at least, while Labour has increasingly become a metropolitan party, attractive to Remainer students and well-to-do English middle classes but lost touch with northern England working class communities, the Tories have begun to appeal to poorer “Red Wall” towns, many of which backed Brexit.

Birmingham MP Khalid Mahmood, a Shadow Defence Minister but perhaps not for long, derided the “London-based bourgeoisie,” backed by “brigades of woke social media warriors,” that had “effectively captured the party”. Sir Keir, London-born and Surrey-raised, is MP for Holborn and St Pancras.

Centre Right Labour peer Lord Adonis branded him a “transitional” figure and claimed: “Labour’s problem is it has had weak or terrible leaders since Tony Blair stood down 14 years ago and until it gets an electable leader, it will keep losing elections.”

The name of northerner Andy Burnham, the Manchester mayor, is already being whispered as a future leader.

Sir Keir now faces a major rethink and reset, that will involve a frontline reshuffle, an overhaul of policy and a drive to reunite his party.

Labour needs fundamentally to find and set out a clear, bold mission statement for Britain in the 21st century. We could see some familiar faces, big hitters like Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn, return to the frontbench.

The mountain Labour has to climb to win power in, perhaps, just two years’ time, is of Everest proportions; so much so that a pre-election pact with the Liberal Democrats looks increasingly possible as the only means to stop a fourth consecutive Tory term. Last month, Ed Davey referred to the pressing need for a “progressive anti-Tory alternative”.

As Sir Keir and his colleagues now struggle through Labour’s dark night of the soul, they can only hope these elections are the darkest period before the new dawn. Otherwise…