A lot of politicians go through phases with phrases – falling back on buzzwords and self-coined instant cliches when seeking to set out a thought to interviewers or people that they meet. Often this becomes the subject of private jokes between their spin doctors – with sneaky glances and wry smiles greeting the umpteenth rolling out of the latest favoured soundbite.
Keir Starmer has a classic just now, a belter of a mixed metaphor to boot. He cannot wait, he tells people, 'to take off the mask and open the throttle'. The saying has such an irresistible air of Accidental Partridge that I’d be surprised were it not to have been the cause of some hilarity among backroom staff.
Setting throttles aside, it is telling that the Labour leader has alighted on this image of himself as a masked and therefore muffled man, deprived by the Covid crisis of the chance properly to convey his authentic self. One is put in mind of The Son of Man painting by the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte, which depicts a conventionally dressed middle-aged male with a big green apple floating in front of his face and thereby obscuring it.
'Everything we see hides another thing,' remarked Magritte, 'we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.' Another unsettling thought is also provoked by the sight of Magritte’s subject – codified by his clothes to within an inch of his life – is there anything there at all?
Unfortunately for Starmer, these days the same applies to him. Following a slide in the polls that got underway in late November and as yet shows no sign of ending, the latest notion doing the rounds is that it is time to 'let Starmer be Starmer' (this being a thought borrowed from the West Wing episode in which advisers decide the president must be encouraged to overcome his timidity and tendency to compromise to placate opponents and instead just 'let Bartlet be Bartlet').
The list of such tactical compromises and manoeuvres in Starmer’s relatively brief political career is already extensive. The Cenotaph defacers of BLM were knelt down to, then heard their movement being played down as a mere 'moment' and then wrung an apology out of the Labour leader for that remark.
Those listening to his 'Mr Whippet' Doncaster online conference speech were told that being knighted by the Queen was one of the proudest moments of his life, only for footage from his legal years of him talking about his staunch republican tendencies to emerge shortly thereafter.
More recently came another royal flip-flop, with Starmer initially claiming the Duchess of Sussex’s accusations of racism within the Royal Family were 'really serious' and a reminder that 'too many people still experience racism in 21st Century Britain'. Asked whether the Royal Family was 'fit for purpose', he added: 'We’ll have to see how the institution reacts to this.'
But a few days later came a great rowing back with the Labour leader declaring: 'I do think it is a matter now for the family.'
Around the same time he also infuriated many Labour MPs by initially telling them not to oppose tax rises in the Budget, only to later order them to vote against them. Something similar happened with the Policing Bill.
Then there was Starmer’s pledge while Labour Brexit spokesman that the referendum result would of course be respected, only for him to shift the party’s policy to supporting a second referendum aimed at scrapping Brexit altogether.
This week we had the farce surrounding Jesus House, with Starmer initially praising the church for its remarkable work in the community, only to apologise for visiting it at all after gay rights activists kicked off about its socially conservative beliefs in that area. Subsequently footage of the visit was wiped from Starmer’s social media footage. All this while avoiding taking any stand at all about the Batley Islamists who hounded a teacher into hiding. And right now Starmer is so tying himself up in tactical knots on the issue of Covid passports that he risks making Ed Davey seem like a decisive statesman by comparison.
Individually these manoeuvres may succeed at extracting him from tight spots, but collectively they are building an unflattering idea of him in the public mind – the slippery London lawyer who cannot be trusted and buckles in the face of determined leftist lobbying.
Aside from some eye-catching action on the issue of anti-Semitism, there is no sign of him taking on the Left of his party in the manner of gutsy Neil Kinnock a generation ago.
The masked and muffled Starmer is not working for the British public. It is quite possible that a career spent steering his way through legal rapids and in a Westminster game of snakes and ladders has caused him to lose touch with his erstwhile underlying values – that there is indeed nothing left beyond the tactician.
But if there is a real Keir Starmer that we have not yet seen then all the clues from his younger days point to him being a classic Guardianista in outlook and equally unelectable as such. In which case the casting aside of the mask is not going to help him at all.