The Labour leader’s advisers believe that the PM could choose to call a poll even earlier than many expect, before tax rises and soaring inflation bite.
And nervous moderates are already urging Sir Keir to cling on if he falls short, with one shadow cabinet minister telling MailOnline they ‘wouldn’t put much money’ on him winning.
Mr Johnson is taking back discretion over the timing of the next election with the fixed-term parliaments law being scrapped.
That could open the door to an earlier vote, with Labour frontbenchers pointing to the fact that planned tax hikes are heavily back-loaded.
Keir Starmer’s advisers believe that the PM could choose to call a poll even earlier than many expect, before tax rises and inflation bite. The Labour leader is pictured at conference today
Boris Johnson is now neck-and-neck with Keir Starmer on 38 per cent on preference for premier – the first time a Labour leader has been on an even footing with a Tory since 2008
A senior shadow minister said that some of the party’s most senior strategists were convinced a poll could happen next year – meaning being on a war footing from the end of this conference.
They warned that Sir Keir is facing an almost impossible struggle to overturn the Tories’ 80-strong majority at the next election.
Asked what the chances were of Labour winning, the frontbencher said: ‘If I was a gambler I wouldn’t put much money on it.’
But they insisted it is crucial that even if Sir Keir loses, he should not step down as long as progress was made. ‘It was a disaster when Ed Miliband quit (in 2015),’ the senior figure said.
‘Everyone started taking the same positions they had before the election. And nobody thought about why we had lost.’
Another shadow cabinet member told MailOnline: ‘His advisors think it is going to be a two-term project. It is a long way up from here.’
Other senior Labour figures expect that Mr Johnson will choose to go longer rather than rush into a risky poll.
Allies of the leader hope that getting through changes to Labour internal rules this week – lifting the threshold for triggering deselection of MPs and increasing the number of nominations a left-winger would need to go for the party’s top job – means that Sir Keir can now focus on speaking to ordinary voters.
In a boost for Sir Keir a poll has found that he is now level-pegging with Mr Johnson on who people prefer as PM – the first time a Labour chief has not been behind on the rating since 2008.
However, Sir Keir is facing a growing insurrection from the Left as he tries to move on from the Jeremy Corbyn era, including ditching the commitment to nationalisation.
‘For a while it seemed like our only solution to anything was to nationalise it or ban it,’ a shadow cabinet minister said.
Shadow employment secretary Andy McDonald quit today saying said his position had been made ‘untenable’ by Sir Keir’s refusal to support a hike in the minimum wage to £15 an hour.
He said he had been ordered to go into a meeting yesterday arguing that the party could not endorse the higher minimum wage and statutory sick pay.
Mr McDonald was seen as a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, and his departure comes amid growing anger on the Left of the party. He is not thought to have given the leadership any warning of his intentions.
There have also been bruising clashes between moderates and the Left over Angela Rayner’s extraordinary description of Tories as ‘scum’.
Boris Johnson is taking back discretion over the timing of the next election with the fixed-term parliaments law being scrapped
Sir Keir has rebuked his deputy – who has her own electoral mandate from members – but she has flatly refused to apologise.
Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Sir Keir should ‘assess his future’ if his conference speech on Wednesday does not start to revive Labour’s fortunes.
‘I think if Keir gets the speech right on Wednesday, he can lift everyone’s spirits and go further. If he doesn’t, and we’re not lifting in the polls, Keir is a sensible enough person to actually sit down and assess his own future,’ he told Times Radio.
Asked what ‘assess his own future’ meant, Mr McDonnell said: ‘I think he’ll look at what he contribution he can make in the future.’
Mr McDonnell also called for Mr Corbyn to be readmitted back into the parliamentary party.
He has been stripped of the whip by Sir Keir for failing to apologise over the handling of anti-Semitism among activists during his leadership, although he has now been readmitted to the party.