Keir Starmer's strategy has always been to wait cautiously for events to unfold, rarely playing too bold a move. When he does act, it is usually after a long period of hibernation.
Starmer sat in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet while many Labour MPs who felt roughly the same way he did about Corbyn’s project either rebelled from the backbenches or even left the party altogether. He ran for leader on a Corbyn-continuity platform, even though it’s fairly clear by now that this isn’t what he truly believes in, simply because it was the safest option. Since becoming leader of the opposition, he has avoided making policy announcements and has instead waited to pick off the government when it has been seen to make a mistake. Starmer plays it safe, in other words.
Yesterday, he called for a short-term nationwide lockdown of two to three weeks; a 'circuit breaker' to enable the government to get back on top of the virus. If implemented, it would essentially mean a repeat of the initial lockdown experienced at the end of March and into April, with bars and restaurants fully closing, offices shutting down, all unessential travel banned, everywhere in the country. He said it could be done over half-term to minimise or even eliminate any disruption to schools.
As announcements go, it was typical Starmer. Instead of coming up with something bold and new, he has recycled something we’ve already done and further, that he knows the government is almost certainly thinking about doing behind closed doors anyhow. There is nothing original or daring about it in the slightest. And yet, the other way it is typical Starmer is that the timing of it is ingenious. What's more, like most Starmer moves since he became an MP, it is likely to work heavily to his political advantage.
For a start, the announcement makes Starmer no new enemies. With the vast portion of the left seemingly now lockdown gaga, he’s playing to the base without alienating anyone in the centre of British politics. It is another well-thought through, careful political step made by Starmer. There are bolder moves he could have made that while riskier, had more of a chance to make an impact as well as possibly help the cracks in the Conservative parliamentary party widen. Yet don’t underestimate the brilliance of the manoeuvre. He has put Boris in a very difficult place with one speech.
If the government does institute a nationwide lockdown over the half-term break, it looks like Starmer is ahead of the curve and worse, that the government is to some extent following his lead. Because Number 10 have kept any thoughts about a half-term lockdown to whispered rumours, they have handed the initiative to Starmer on this. If they follow what Starmer has suggested, it is hard not to see the leader of the opposition getting credit for being sage amongst a lot of the voters Labour is currently targeting. It adds to his 'competency' file in a big way; how much more prime ministerial can you get in opposition than the government of the day hanging off your every word, putting your announcements into practice?
On the other hand, if the government does not put in place a lockdown and the NHS becomes overwhelmed – or even if its kept under control but Covid deaths begin to creep up further – then Starmer has what he has lacked since the crisis began: something solid he can point to as an 'I would have done things differently' item that in no way relies on hindsight.
You can bemoan Starmer’s lack of boldness all you like; the truth is, it has pretty much always worked out for him. While most of those Labour MPs who took bolder moves against the Corbyn project have seen their political careers finished prematurely, Keir Starmer is the leader of the official opposition and possibly the next prime minister of the United Kingdom.
It’s a sad fact of politics, but often times waiting patiently for the right time to make a minor but effective move is the thing that gets you to the top. No one currently involved in British politics knows how to do that better than Keir Starmer.
Meanwhile, his announcement has put huge pressure on Boris and his government. Starmer’s suggestion of a circuit breaker means that every possible move they have available to them just got much riskier. You can dislike Starmer’s strategy as much as you like, but you’ll have hard time convincing me that it isn’t highly effective.