The way to beat Boris Johnson is to offer a stark contrast to his political persona. At all points radiate seriousness, professionalism and competence and in times such as these the electorate will soon tire of his joshing and clown-like antics and flock to your banner instead.
That’s the theory anyway and it seems to be working fine for Nicola Sturgeon, as evidenced by the SNP’s stratospheric poll ratings.
But it isn’t working for Keir Starmer, whose Labour party remains way behind Johnson’s Tories in UK-wide polls, despite the Labour leader matching Sturgeon’s demeanour comb for comb and furrowed brow for furrowed brow.
Starmer overshadows his own party’s top team every bit as much as Sturgeon does hers. In both cases the idea that a leader needs a group of high-calibre and well-known senior colleagues has fallen away. But while Sturgeon is perceived as an Ice Queen, so far Starmer has been viewed as the first example in British politics of a One Man Bland.
Starmer has quite good personal ratings and is fairly widely perceived to be of prime ministerial calibre. His media cheerleaders continue to do their best for him, with one – the Guardian’s Rafael Behr – recently observing that the Tories are unable to lay a glove on the Labour leader. But equally, it could be observed that Starmer seems unable to lay a glove on the Tories. And when they have 364 MPs and he has 202, that is surely more of a problem for him.
So why are the fortunes of Starmer and Sturgeon panning out so differently? Obviously it helps Sturgeon that she is in government and can therefore show as well as tell. It also helps that Johnson’s articulation of a certain kind of English eccentric goes down like a lead balloon north of the border, while his willingness to expend political capital on securing a meaningful post-Brexit settlement with the EU cuts little ice in a nation that voted 60:40 in favour of Remain.
And of course, Sturgeon’s pre-eminence in her domain makes life much harder for Starmer, taking five points off Labour’s potential UK-wide poll rating – meaning Labour will probably have to beat the Conservatives in England to secure a parliamentary majority.
Yet England itself is where Starmer’s principal woes are to be found. Not the England of Guardian-reading universities or the major conurbations – where Labour continues to rack up extra support (see for instance recent London mayoral polling, which points to a landslide for Sadiq Khan next year) – but socially conservative, pro-Brexit provincial England.
This includes the ‘red wall’ seats lost so traumatically in December but is not confined to them. Previous tranches of marginal ‘Middle England’ seats where Tony Blair once swept the board will also need to be won over for Labour to take power again.
Labour doesn’t just need to win back Rugby League towns such as Workington and Leigh, but a good number of Rugby Union ones as well. Places such as Worcester, where a Labour majority of 3,000 in 2005 has gradually evolved into a Tory majority of nearly 7,000, despite the collapse of the Lib Dem vote. Or Rugby itself, where a Conservative majority of 6,000 in 2010 grew to almost 13,500 in December.
Making technocratic points about the handling of coronavirus is not going to achieve that when Labour is widely regarded as not passing a basic test of patriotism. Starmer has had almost nothing to say on the Channel dinghy crossings that trash British border controls daily. Indeed, he became Labour leader on a personal manifesto that included ending indefinite detention of irregular migrants, which would further weaken national defences against illegal immigration.
He has taken a knee for Black Lives Matter and many of his MPs seem far more bothered about well-known black people having their cars stopped by police patrolling crime-ridden streets than about young men being murdered in gang violence.
Starmer himself waded in against the Metropolitan Police in the Dawn Butler case last weekend and yet his social media feed was silent the day before about the horrifying murder of a 17-year-old boy in the central London constituency that borders his own.
There seems little prospect of activist Labour members allowing him to move away from these attitudes, even if he was inclined to do so himself. In fact, they appear to expect ever more acquiescence from him towards their hard-line identity politics.
As the left-wing Labour MP Clive Lewis recently told the Guardian: ‘What was acceptable before [BLM] may no longer be acceptable now. There’s a higher standard that’s expected by black voters, black members and if you can’t step up to that, if you struggle in the new reality, then you’re going to be found wanting.’
Sir Kneel-a-lot is not a political persona that will appeal to a Middle England suspiscious of his attempts to rat out the Brexit referendum result.
With the Government holding its nerve for a no-deal end game if Brussels does not buckle this autumn (which it might), and reportedly soon to unveil an Asylum Bill that will appeal to the hearts of Middle England even as it melts the heads of leftish metropolitans, Starmer is not even playing on the relevant pitch.
Even if he manages to convince people that Boris Johnson is a buffoon, he should not be surprised if the response comes back: ‘Yes, but at least he is our buffoon.’