Starmer is Labour's Iain Duncan Smith

10 May 2021

9:25 PM

10 May 2021

9:25 PM

After a gruelling election campaign the most important thing to do is to have a rest and have a think. Everyone is exhausted and things done in the heat of the moment are liable to be ill-considered.

During my own brief time in electoral politics, I learned this the hard way. I played a leading role in an idiotic falling out at the top of Ukip after it secured almost four million votes but just one seat in the 2015 general election. A more seasoned colleague went on holiday and later described to me how he had watched the unedifying feuding unfold on a smartphone from his balcony while sipping gin and tonics and staring at the Med.

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson learned a similar lesson when they fell out after the 2016 EU referendum, resulting in both of them sustaining disabling damage that sank their Tory leadership hopes and lumbered the country with three years of political constipation under Theresa May.

Keir Starmer has just learned the same lesson, having suffered a horrible bloody nose at the hands of voters and then launched into a half-baked shadow cabinet reshuffle that has made things even worse for him. By first accepting responsibility for Labour’s awful results and then fitting Angela Rayner up as a scapegoat, Starmer took a further chunk out of his ailing stocks of authority.

Upon realising that as deputy leader Rayner had her own mandate from party members and also had major figures from all wings of the party rallying behind her, Starmer had to backtrack by awarding her numerous new job titles. So much chaos was caused in the process that other significant moves were pretty much aborted, apart from the long-expected replacement of Anneliese Dodds by Rachel Reeves as shadow chancellor.

Denis Healey’s political ‘law of holes’ stated simply that when you are in one, stop digging. But you need to have been in the guild of politicians for quite a while to fully understand when to apply that wisdom. All that can be said for Keir Starmer is that perhaps he knows now.

For the goings on of the past few days serve as a reminder that in terms of front-rank politicians, Starmer is something of a rookie. While it is true that David Cameron became Conservative leader just four years after entering the Commons, he had previously spent many years in the belly of the political beast as a Tory party researcher and government special adviser.

Starmer, by contrast, has been an MP for six years but before that was never employed in politics. And it is showing. His terrible Sky News interview on Friday, in which he spoke about Labour’s need to change, was another case in point. Pressed by his interviewer to specify one key change or new policy idea that might appeal to voters, he could not do so.

No top politician properly schooled in the craft would be left without an animating cause or subject to be able to whip out of his back pocket when under pressure.

A few weeks back came yet another example of Starmer’s novice status. When new state investment was announced for deprived towns, the Labour leader pointed out that most places chosen had Tory MPs and accused ministers of pork barrel politics. But the message that went out to unsentimental transactional voters, such as those in Hartlepool, was that electing a Conservative MP was a sure way to get more money spent in your locality. The response was not ‘aren’t these Tories sleazy and vile’ but ‘OK, let’s do that then’.

Labour is known for failing to remove dud leaders, allowing Michael Foot to carry its banner in 1983, giving Neil Kinnock a second go in 1992 and ballsing-up various coups against Gordon Brown before the 2010 election. Even Jeremy Corbyn was able to stay in place when miles behind May in the second half of 2016.

So the odds are that Starmer will limp on – at least until the Batley and Spen by-election. But his erstwhile fan club of leftish political pundits have seen him have an emperor’s clothes moment and may withdraw their own reputational investments in his future. The question fairly obviously now is not whether he is a Blair or merely a Kinnock, but whether he is Labour’s equivalent of Iain Duncan Smith.

The next set of opinion polls are likely to be exceptionally horrible for Labour. The Greens are bound to enjoy a bounce at Labour’s expense. Boris Johnson’s Tories probably will as well. The gap between the Conservatives and Labour could be huge. Starmer’s personal ratings having been heading south for months but are liable to drop through the floor now.

And worse than that, it appears that Starmer is not much liked or rated by any Labour faction. Blairite peer Andrew Adonis says he must go, the triumphant Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham says the party’s problem is that it is too London-centric and that it knows where he is if it needs him. Hint, hint.

A month or so ago, Keir Starmer gave an interview in which he said he was looking forward to ripping off his mask and opening the throttle. The mask is gone. But it looks like there was never anything much behind it.

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