A new problem is looming for Sir Keir Starmer: a leader of the opposition needs some shop windows if he is to get more punters through the doors and his will shortly be getting boarded up.
Prime Minister’s Questions is usually more important to opposition leaders than it is to the actual PM because he must demonstrate that he has the potential to upend the status quo, increasing market share at the expense of the dominant player.
By a quirk of parliament’s amended coronavirus calendar, Sir Keir Starmer still has four PMQs outings in which to strut his stuff before the later than usual summer recess. Yet, methodical and measured though his performances have been, it is fair to say that no trees have been uprooted and the lack of atmosphere in a four-fifths empty chamber is starting to take its toll.
By July, an opposition leader will usually be contemplating his biggest shop window of the year – the party conference and his own keynote speech at it. By convention, that is a moment when broadcasters give top billing to an opposition leader and the wider public casts an eye over the contender for power and what he has set out on his stall. But there will be no Labour Party conference this year – it has fallen victim, already, to Covid-19.
The other staple for an opposition leader looking to burnish credentials as a PM-in-waiting is an overseas tour, during which a choreographed photo-opportunity with a G7-level foreign leader can cast him as a statesman.
That is also very difficult. For a start, most overseas governments are still focused on fighting coronavirus and have cut visits by foreign dignitaries to a minimum. Furthermore, the key destination – the USA – is out of bounds for multiple reasons: the chaos of Covid, the identity of the occupant of the White House and the fact that it is an election year. Maybe Sir Keir will manage a moment with Merkel or Macron, but a handshake with Potus is for the time being out of reach.
Wise old heads around the Labour leader will be fretting about all this. I recall, many moons ago, having a July drink with one of David Cameron’s press team during Cameron’s five-year stint as opposition leader. He was already anxious about the polls, telling me the rule of thumb was that two points were lost off the Tory score every week Cameron did not secure major coverage on the TV news. Hence, if three weeks passed without Dave being seen to hug a huskie or roll up his sleeves at a social action project everyone started getting twitchy.
Starmer appears already to have realised the importance of sending out signals to voters who reside outside his usual electoral base. Hence the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, a very well-produced Labour video celebrating Armed Forces Day and a rapid distancing from the militants of Black Lives Matter.
He has also, to the irritation of some Labour members, been in regular contact with Tony Blair, whose first year as Labour leader was marked by the most spectacular signal sent out in modern times by a leader of the opposition to swing voters: the abandonment of Clause IV.
Despite inheriting a comfortable poll lead from the late John Smith and facing a fatigued PM with a tiny majority, Blair was so ruthless about electoral victory that he still set off his mega firework during his first party conference leader’s speech.
There is little doubt that he will be advising Starmer to carry out, in short order, a similar game-changing act or that Starmer will appreciate the need to do so. A low-key summer in which Boris Johnson deploys the PM’s ever-present media pulpit at will and Labour slips back in the polls, running into an autumn without a set-piece conference speech simply will not do.
So, what might be the rocket that Starmer sends up? Clearly it needs to be something that will help reconnect Labour to voters in the old ‘red wall’ seats that were lost in December. But options are limited. The PM has already occupied uber-Keynesian ground on the economy and is regularly showering the NHS with public displays of affection and so will be hard to outflank on those issues.
Starmer’s own background and political inclinations tell us not to expect any tough new approach to immigration, law and order or the human rights framework.
We are left, I suggest, with Brexit. The transition period is ending and Starmer, with just 200 MPs at his back, cannot do anything to stop that. He will be painfully aware that his touting of a ‘Remain option’ in defiance of the referendum result was, along with Jeremy Corbyn’s unfitness for office, the biggest factor in the collapse of the red wall. With Scotland still a write-off, he needs those English and Welsh seats back if he is to make any advance.
So look out for this in the weeks ahead: Starmer pitches up in somewhere like Stoke-on-Trent or the Don Valley. Journalists are tipped off the night before that he will be making a speech with a ‘newsworthy announcement’ in it.
He says something along the following lines:
We…I… tried to keep Britain in the EU for the very best of motives. We believed it would be better for living standards in towns and cities like this. But we should have accepted your verdict sooner. We should have embraced a new political paradigm and fought for our social democratic values within it. Well, we are going to do that now.
Then, looking straight down the lens of the camera, he declares:
My Labour party fully accepts the UK’s departure from the EU. We will always work for friendly relations and good trading links with it but to those still arguing for delays and rethinks I say this: ‘Give it up. There’s no going back.’