The luxuriantly coiffured soft left Labourite Keir Starmer may, at first glance, appear to have almost nothing in common with the balding Thatcherite Tory Iain Duncan Smith. In fact, when he wins the Labour leadership contest this weekend, as he surely will, he faces a political challenge that is similar to the one IDS accepted when he became Leader of the Opposition on September 13, 2001.
IDS arrived at the summit of his party at a moment of profound international crisis, just as an incumbent premier with a prodigious gift for communication was judged by the British public to be rising magnificently to the occasion. The public immediately understood then that the terror attacks of September 11 constituted an epoch-shifting event for the world, just as they understand the same now about the global pandemic of coronavirus, also known (by the most powerful man in the world) as 'the China virus'.
The particular geo-political and societal impacts of coronavirus are, of course, yet to play out. But most of us appreciate they are going to be huge. The impacts of 9/11, dominating international relations for a decade and more afterwards, are etched on all our memories.
The first major opinion poll after IDS became Tory leader had Labour on 53 per cent and the Tories on 27 per cent – two polls this weekend had the Conservatives on 54 per cent and Labour on 28 per cent. So Starmer, like Duncan Smith before him, will be starting out 26 points behind a prime minister elected with a landslide majority just a few months beforehand.
In such a climate the most obvious challenge will simply be to get noticed. This is something IDS proved unable to achieve. Given that Blair enunciated precisely the political position, (shoulder-to-shoulder with our closest ally and well up for a military response), that IDS advocated it is not at all clear what else he could have done to earn himself a significant speaking part in the unfolding drama. So he became, in effect Mr #MeToo, before that hashtag had been invented.
Any carping at Prime Minister’s Questions would have earned him brickbats from his own MPs, many of whom were doolally over Blair at the time. Fortunately for Starmer, the same cannot be said about Labour MPs and Boris Johnson. On the contrary, most have succumbed to irrational loathing of the Prime Minister and will expect their new leader to rip into him from the despatch box at every opportunity. Such pressure will contain its own dangers and Starmer would be very well advised to resist it for the time being at least.
Britain’s metropolitan Leftist tribe is showing every sign of not understanding the basic rhythms of politics. So obsessive has its hatred of Johnson become – principally because of Brexit – that it believes continuing to wage a high octane campaign against him with its speaker volumes all turned up to eleven all of the time will deliver an early knockout blow.
This echo chamber Left thinks all it needs to do is to carry on bellowing that the PM is a buffoon, a liar, a con man and an extremist to awaken the British public from a slumber of false consciousness about him. Their theory, presumably, is that the scales will soon fall from the eyes of voters as they realise that the Left is correct about Johnson and then they will turn to Labour.
One of the chief advocates and practitioners of this approach, Kevin Maguire, devoted his column in yesterday's Mirror to the fanciful idea that a post-coronavirus general election will need to take place next May. Other leftish columnists, such as Marina Hyde of the Guardian, earn themselves regular social media acclaim from tribal elders for writing ever more personally venomous pieces about the PM. Even hard-bitten veterans like Alastair Campbell have succumbed to the notion that unleashing their own obsessive anti-Johnson hostility day after day constitutes useful political activity.
It will be hugely tempting for Starmer, knowing that profile and headlines are important for sustaining the short-term poll ratings of opposition leaders, to succumb to this mentality from the word go. It would be a disastrous mistake.
The basic facts of politics are these: so clearly did he win the general election in December that Boris Johnson was, in effect, awarded a nine-year contract. It has a break clause in May 2024 should his employers (the British public) decide that he has hugely under-performed. Having, formally at least, 'got Brexit done', his personal ratings and his party’s poll ratings were already buoyant when Covid-19 hit. In pulling together a comprehensive governmental response to it, including economic measures few would have expected from a Tory, he has taken them to stratospheric levels.
Starmer, meanwhile, is about to take the helm of a Labour party that is widely reviled, is genuinely thought of by voters as harbouring extremists and is believed to be incompetent to boot. Very few floating voters think it anywhere near ready to be ranked as a potential alternative government. Speed boat politics is not going to turn around this oil tanker.
Were Starmer to go in hard and early on Johnson like some superannuated student union blabbermouth out to score cheap points he could certainly secure plaudits from core Leftists. But only at the cost of convincing moderate voters that he is just another opportunist left-wing blowhard lacking in basic patriotism.
Patient, forensic probing – the unfurling of lawyerly skills – will be an approach much more likely to bear fruit in the long-term. Starmer, or Sir Keir as we should properly call him, does have one advantage over IDS other than good hair. It is that he brings with him a presumed level of substance that comes from having occupied a major position in public life before turning to politics.
Could a normal, reasonable voter imagine him as a British prime minister representing the country at international summits one day? It’s not necessarily a 'no'. If he puts down sensible markers and leaves hyperbolic terminology in a cupboard for the day the climate of public opinion cools on Johnson then he has a chance of clawing back some of Labour’s lost ground. If he heeds the deranged Leftist chorus which he will find all about him then he will be done for before he begins.