Keir Starmer went back to what he most enjoys at Prime Minister’s Questions: calling the government incompetent and demanding that it ‘get a grip’, especially over Covid. Let’s face it, he’s hardly short of material given all the let downs and U-turns that the PM has inflicted on the nation. He swiftly reduced Boris Johnson to the cringeworthy tactic of claiming that criticism of him amounted to an attempt to ‘deprecate the efforts of NHS track and trace’.
But more significant than Starmer’s deployment of his relentless boxer’s jab about competence today was what he did yesterday. In a series of television interviews, the Labour leader very publicly embraced Brexit. Millions of voters across multiple channels will have seen him deliver a key message to camera: ‘The Leave-Remain argument is over’. Starmer won’t hold another referendum on the matter and is not in favour of extending the transition period to grant more time for negotiations.
‘Get on, negotiate and get the deal that was promised,’ urged Sir Keir in his very own version of Johnson’s election-winning ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan. When invited to vent about the government’s readiness to break international law, he declined to mount a lawyerly high horse and instead brought the conversation straight back to the national interest.
It wasn’t a million miles away from the ‘there’s no going back’ Brexit gambit that I predicted he would embark on in an article in July.
Clearly, after a frustrating summer of being stuck polling below 40 per cent despite the government’s tragi-comedy of errors, Starmer has come to understand that to even get a hearing with the lost red wall voters a major ‘moment’ on Brexit was required.
The most interesting thing here is that Starmer’s team clearly gets that it is playing political chess on more than one board. Things are going OK on the board marked ‘competence’. Voters are understandably sceptical about the ability of any political regime to avoid fouling up, but Starmer still has the upper hand when it comes to projecting technocratic and administrative ability. But the Brexit repositioning marked a development on another chessboard, one marked ‘convictions’. Because voters are hardly likely to install an alternative PM on grounds of superior competence if they believe he will use it to advance causes that they strongly disagree.
So Starmer is adopting a bit of Marxism of the Groucho variety (‘These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others’). Similar motives surely lay behind his intervention in the row over the Last Night of the Proms, where he defended the ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ of the occasion before Johnson did.
And yet, one should not get carried away with the idea that he is making great headway here. These are baby steps in rehabilitating the Labour brand with the red wallers. And all the time Starmer is balancing his wooing of them with the opposite convictions held by his activist base and often by himself.
Hence his unwillingness to go after the government over the fiasco of illegal Channel crossings, other than to demand it ‘get a grip’ and to authorise shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds to complain about the lack of ‘safe and legal routes’ for those flouting the system.
And remember too that even over Last Night of the Proms, Starmer’s spokesman added that: ‘Enjoying patriotic songs does not and should not be a barrier to examining our past and learning lessons from it.’ This comment ought to remind us that Labour still has a manifesto policy of setting up a commission to ‘conduct an audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy to understand our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule’.
Labour under Starmer remains hugely vulnerable in the culture wars that are dominating our politics, on everything from BLM to asylum reform to so-called ‘Islamophobia’ and the trans debate. The convictions of senior Tories – on the rare occasions when they remember what they are – are far more in tune with the sentiment in the red wall.
This brings us on to the final chessboard, what we might term ‘cohort’. This is the sense that the Labour leader has a strong top team and an overall set of MPs who can help him improve the country. Here there is almost no progress to report. Hardline and high-profile practitioners of identity politics such as Dawn Butler and Nadia Whittome are a gift to the Tories. As far as the frontbench goes, the position is barely any better. Thomas-Symonds and shadow justice secretary David Lammy do not convince as being on the side of the law-abiding majority, Lisa Nandy occupies a foreign affairs portfolio that is traditionally a backwater for opposition politicians, while Anneliese Dodds has proven a flop as shadow chancellor, projecting the image of a dotty academic on the rare occasions when she garners any media limelight at all.
So a Labour leader who may be a more competent administrator than Boris Johnson has budged on Brexit but remains hopelessly vulnerable on most cultural issues while in charge of a frontbench team bereft of star quality.
Edging it on competence, way behind on conviction and beaten out of sight on cohort, Starmer has a very long way to go before he makes Labour electable again. Perhaps the one thing that can keep Starmer going is just how long he has to improve his fortunes.
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