There are few things so perilous for an under-performing opposition leader as the emergence of a 'king over the water'. This is typically someone who is a member of the same party with an impressive track record but who isn’t currently in the Commons and is therefore not subject to the patronage wielded by the leader. As the leader flails, the king over the water is deemed to have acquired miraculous powers. Each new poll recording the leader’s unpopularity launches a thousand new daydreams among party members fondly imagining how the king over the water would reshape things in ways they yearn for.
Keir Starmer is now faced with just such an entity in the shape of the Manchester Metro Mayor Andy Burnham, the biggest Labour winner in the recent elections. Burnham even luxuriates in the nickname 'king of the north', advertising his reach into heartland voting areas the national party has lost.
Tory diarist Alan Clark once noted:
'There are no true friends in politics. We are all sharks circling, and waiting, for traces of blood to appear in the water.'
It turns out Burnham is not even pretending to be friendly to Starmer, criticising him repeatedly since polling day on grounds of his lack of ideas, London-centric approach and attempt to demote Angela Rayner.
'The problem we have had – there is a caution that stops people putting forward clear policies,' said Burnham. In another interview, he said he did not intend going for the leadership before the next election or 'any time soon' but would stand in the future if the party thought him right for the job. Clearly the idea of Starmer winning the next election and becoming a long-serving prime minister was not in the forefront of his mind.
Doubtless we will hear more about such things via Burnham’s new column in the London Evening Standard – a perfect platform from which to project himself as the natural successor and indirectly highlight Starmer’s shortcomings.
The whole Westminster village, from journalists to pollsters to MPs is likely to buy into this narrative. Following Labour’s 6 May debacle, pollsters are already testing how potential alternative leaders would fare. At the weekend, Opinium asked voters who would be 'good or bad Labour leaders now'. Burnham was classified as a good leader by 47 per cent of respondents, compared to just 19 per cent saying he would be bad, a net rating of +28 to compared to the same pollster’s finding that Starmer’s net favourability is -11.
The Starmer-Burnham relationship is already reminiscent of that which developed between William Hague and Michael Portillo when the former was a new Tory leader languishing in the polls and the latter was broadening his appeal via a blossoming TV career after losing his seat in the 1997 Labour landslide.
The poison really set in when Hague agreed to be interviewed by Portillo on a Yorkshire moor for a television programme called Portillo’s Progress. Portillo sat atop a rocky outcrop dressed heroically in Indiana Jones-type garb, while Hague crouched a few feet below clad in a nerdy cagoule. The camera angle accorded Portillo god-like status, while Hague came over as a lost child. The Independent on 9 October 1998 quoted one Hague aide admitting:
'It was a mistake. Portillo looked like a big beast and Hague a little boy. It was painful to watch.'
Even though Portillo was never as publicly disobliging about Hague as Burnham has already been about Starmer, mistrust rapidly grew. Michael Heseltine helpfully suggested the TV programme had been a 'set up', while some people around Hague shored up their own positions by highlighting to him every occasion when Portillo was said to be 'on manoeuvres'.
From the moment Portillo arrived back in the Commons in late 1999 after winning a by-election, his mere presence in the shadow cabinet – Hague had no option but to bring him inside the tent as shadow chancellor – institutionalised faction-fighting and fed a constant media belittling of Hague.
Starmer’s consolation in relation to Burnham is that there is no obvious early path back into the Commons for him. Burnham has pledged to serve a full second term as Greater Manchester Mayor, which will keep him in that post until May 2024. While he could cite a Boris Johnson precedent for 'double hatting' by coming back to the Commons a year before relinquishing the mayoral day job, he would struggle to get away with being mayor and party leader simultaneously for more than a very few weeks. Effectively that means he could not replace Starmer before the start of 2024.
But the contrast in their political CVs is not going to disappear. Starmer has been an elected politician for six years and had one shadow cabinet post before becoming leader. Burnham has been an elected politician for 20 years and served in multiple Cabinet portfolios in the Blair and Brown administrations. Starmer has proved unable to communicate a compelling message and been walloped at the ballot box, Burnham has honed his plain-speaking-flat-vowels act to perfection and was re-elected by a landslide.
As it so happens the person who will decide their fates is likely to be Boris Johnson. If he really doesn’t want to risk facing Burnham then he will go for a 2023 election. If he thinks he has the measure of Burnham too and views the likely defenestration of Starmer as good sport then he will go for 2024, chuckle as Burnham returns via a by-election in 2023 and allow the impending duel to play out.
My own king over the water rule is quite simple: from an opposition leader’s perspective, as soon as there is one it is already too late.