Is it a fatal handicap for a politician to be dull? Since he became Labour leader two years ago, there has been a growing feeling that Sir Keir Starmer not only lacks the magical ‘X Factor’ that makes for political success, but is in proud possession of its polar opposite – what might be called the ‘Zzz.. Factor’: that he is, in a word, boring.
This week, Labour’s fears about the soporific nature of their chief finally surfaced with a report in which unnamed Shadow Cabinet members accused Starmer of ‘boring everyone to death’. Earlier, in a coded rebuke of her boss, his deputy Angela Rayner begged him to put more ‘welly’ in his political style. Finally, the pollsters J.L. Partners found that half the respondents in a survey thought Sir Keir was ‘boring, bland and dull’ – while the other half were merely indifferent to him.
Clearly nettled by the charges, an angry Starmer rounded on his critics at a shadow cabinet meeting and told them to stop briefing the media about how tedious he is. ‘What’s boring is being in opposition,’ he said.
It is obvious, though, that there is some substance to the charges. Asked by the LBC presenter Nick Ferrari to name one exciting thing that he did in his life, the millionaire lawyer offered taking his children to football matches (without, however, mentioning that he gets freebie tickets worth thousands to do so).
Encouraged by Ferrari to cite another exciting event in his life, Sir Keir finally came up with an occasion when he was offered a spare room in a well-wisher’s house – only to find the bed already occupied by someone else. He added that he did not discover whether the occupant was male or female, which, since he has trouble defining a woman, is perhaps understandable.
Sir Keir need not despair. The episode of the occupied bed at least sounds slightly more exciting than former prime minister Theresa May’s most edgy experience of running through corn fields. And the fact that May reached the dizzy heights of Downing Street despite her dullness proves that being terminally boring need not be a fatal bar to ultimate political success.
One of Sir Keir’s most distinguished predecessors as Labour leader, Clement Attlee, was widely written off as an insignificant nullity – including by his Tory opponent Winston Churchill who famously (and possibly apocryphally) is said to have described him as ‘a modest little man with much to be modest about’. Churchill is also reputed to have coined the witticism that ‘an empty car drew up in Downing Street and Mr Attlee got out’.
If Churchill did hold such disparaging views of his Labour rival, he had good cause to revise and regret them after Attlee efficiently conducted the home front’s business as the great man’s deputy while Churchill was off winning World War Two. And after the war, Attlee led Labour to a landslide election victory over Churchill’s Tories, presiding over one of the century’s great reforming governments and surviving twenty years as Labour’s longest serving leader. As the modest little man himself put it in a witty Limerick:
‘Few thought he was even a starter,
Many thought that they were smarter,
But he ended PM, CH, and OM,
An Earl and a Knight of the Garter’.
Much more dangerous to Starmer’s political prospects than the fact that he is, as political guru Sir Lynton Crosby said of his former boss, the election winning former Australian PM John Howard ‘as dull as batshit’, is the fact that he appears to lack basic political skills. To succeed in their trade, politicians need what the Germans call ‘fingerspitzengefuhl’ – fingertip feelings: a sensitivity to ever changing popular moods, coupled with rat-like cunning and a certain ruthlessness.
Sadly for Labour, Starmer has demonstrated none of these qualities. Surprisingly for such a fan of the beautiful game, time and again he has fumbled the ball and failed to boot it into a goalmouth that is wide open. He was the architect of Labour’s disastrous Brexit policy which helped lose them the 2019 election. His ham-fisted attempt to demote his deputy Angela Rayner ended with him being forced to promote her instead. And his calls for Boris Johnson to resign over ‘partygate’ backfired when he was accused of breaking Covid rules himself – a charge that is still under police investigation.
The evidence is mounting that the Labour’s leader’s fatal flaw is not just that he is a boring dullard – but that he is also a hopeless politician.
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