On Friday, as Labour politicians and operatives turned on one another over their failure to take Boris Johnson’s old seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, wildfires continued to spread across Greece as hailstorms battered parts of Northern Italy, a country simultaneously experiencing average temperatures of 32°C.

Temperatures in Italy comfortably broke 40°C earlier this week, months after severe flooding in its Emilia-Romagna region cost the lives of 17 people, displaced over 50,000 more, and did over €7 billion in damage.

Extreme weather events like flooding, heatwaves, and wildfires are becoming more common and intense in Europe and globally because of human-made climate change. We face the evidence every summer, from deadly weather to record-breaking statistics.

The headlines on Friday were not dominated by these stories but by a trio of English by-elections.

In the southwest, the Liberal Democrat’s Sarah Dyke won the previously Conservative seat of Somerton and Frome with a 29-point swing away from the Conservatives.

And in North Yorkshire, Labour’s Keir Mather captured the Conservative seat of Selby and Ainsty by wiping out the largest majority Labour has ever overturned in a by-election: 20,137.

But in London, the Conservatives held on to Uxbridge and South Ruislip – Boris Johnson’s old seat – with a much-shrunken majority of 495. It is now one of the ten most-marginal seats in England, one that has not been a Labour-held seat since 1970. Even in 1997, the Conservatives held on by 724 votes.

A record-breaking by-election victory and the governing party’s majority in a recent Prime Minister’s stickily loyal seat cut to the bone. The results scream of a governing party hitting the rocks and a juggernaut opposition ready to sweep the debris aside.

Instead, the Labour reaction was to turn on Sadiq Khan and his planned expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) across all its boroughs by the end of August. The party’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer, called on the London Mayor to “reflect” on the impact of the policy, which he was unequivocal had cost them the election. In June, Sir Keir had said Mr Khan was “right” to expand ULEZ, acknowledging its role in efforts to fight lung cancer.

Only this Labour Party could turn such a positive set of by-election results into a story about its internal division and uncertainty over policy. No other party would have allowed such a negative reading of the week’s events to dominate the coverage, never mind the discourse of their members and politicians.

But it’s hardly surprising that this is how Labour reacted. A juggernaut opposition ready to sweep aside the debris of the Conservative government? Hardly. They look more like a party so traumatised by four successive general election defeats, the ructions of the Brexit wars, and their endless internecine conflict under Corbyn that they jump at the sight of their shadow.

U-turns on long-standing Labour policy increasingly characterise Keir Starmer’s leadership. His commitment earlier this week to scrapping the two-child cap on child benefits was simply the latest.

That decision, their recent reworking of a £28 billion climate investment pledge, and other reversals are tactics that fit into a clear strategy: say nothing and do nothing that differentiates us from the Conservatives, and the unpopularity of the government will do the work of winning the election for us.

As Sir Keir put it to Labour’s National Policy Forum on Saturday, “We are doing something very wrong if policies put forward by the Labour Party end up on each and every Tory leaflet”.

It is a strategy that fits neatly into the Labour right’s theory of how to win elections; one justified on the grounds that winning power comes before anything else.

There have been, broadly characterised, three reactions to the collective realisation of how rigidly Sir Keir intends to stick to this strategy. The first, mainly external to the Labour movement, has been to turn that purposeful lack of differentiation against Labour: what is the point of Labour if all they do is mirror the Conservatives?

The second, more from sympathetic supporters like Alastair Campbell, suggests that this is merely realpolitik and that a Keir Starmer government would govern in a very different direction to Rishi Sunak’s Tories. Mr Campbell bet his The Rest is Politics co-host, and former Conservative MP, Rory Stewart that a Starmer government would indeed end up scrapping the two-child cap.

The third has been to despair of Sir Keir’s manoeuvring and to speculate whether, with plenty of Conservative MPs now signalling a desire to pivot against many, if not all, net zero policies, his version of Lynton Crosby’s “barnacles off the boat” strategy could see Labour’s climate pledges jettisoned altogether – alongside a raft of other policies on welfare, healthcare, and employment rights.

I cannot pretend to know Sir Keir’s mind, so I won’t bother speculating as to what’s going on in it. But he was right on Saturday to characterise “the rescue job” awaiting Labour if they win the next election as unprecedented.

And frankly, after the 13 years of calamitous Conservative rule that have brought us to this place, a strategy that amounts to saying and doing nothing those same Conservatives might criticise you for isn’t some devilishly clever politicking Sir Keir should be praised for.

A Labour Party that cannot bring itself to commit to lifting 250,000 children out of poverty at a cost of £1.3bn a year, less than 1% of the UK’s welfare spending, for fear of Conservative criticism, has lost confidence in its convictions.

And a Labour Party willing to acknowledge the deep crises facing the UK and the world but without the intellectual, political, or moral courage to present a vision to match that challenge, even in part, is one that doesn’t deserve to govern.

But deserving or not, it looks like they will end up in government. Maybe Keir Starmer, his team, and his party are better than what we’ve seen to date. I hope they are because we need them to be – timid political appeasement won’t be enough in the burning, freezing, flooding world around us.