Keir Starmer pictured at a Labour leadership contest hustings in Bristol.WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

We could be in the wilderness for even longer’ worried Labour MP Chris Bryant on election night in December 2019. He had reason to fret; it was the Labour Party’s worst performance since 1935. They had just lost their fourth consecutive election, and their second under the same leader. Earlier that month 38% of YouGov’s respondents had said they would never vote Labour. The Tory party, overflowing with confidence and drunk on Brexit, were jubilant. When, in January 2020, Labour members voted Corbyn the party’s most popular leader Johnson taunted him in the Commons. ‘I want him to know those sentiments are warmly shared by many on this side of the house’ he bayed; far from being an interrogation of the government, PMQs had become a visualisation of Tory dominance and Labour’s impotence.

How different things look now. The political mood has shifted drastically: optimism is out, sombre statements are in. Coronavirus has affected all spheres of life, and politics as much as any. The pandemic has perhaps overshadowed another major political shift, however: Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader in April. So far, it’s been a good start. 

"Though the parliamentary arithmetic hasn’t changed, and the Conservatives retain a working majority of 87, they are far less sure of themselves."

Starmer seems to be in a different class to his predecessor at PMQs, an improvement that has been noted with concern inside the Tory party. After Starmer’s first clash with Johnson one minister observed, ‘Starmer was impressive … he’s got off to an undeniably good start.’ The post-mortem back at Number 10 was apparently sombre. The Telegraph’s political sketch writer thought ‘Keir Starmer took Boris Johnson apart like a Duplo train set.’ There is a begrudging acceptance on the right that they won’t have things all their own way any longer. It is striking that the Telegraph, or ‘Torygraph’, put a Starmer quote on their front cover on VE day, a clear snub to Johnson (who idolises Churchill). The number of people who say they would never vote Labour is now 28%, down 10% since the election. Though the parliamentary arithmetic hasn’t changed, and the Conservatives retain a working majority of 87, they are far less sure of themselves.

Coronavirus has shifted the political goalposts. Clarity and knowledge of detail are in demand as politicians face questions about the rate of infection and plans to ease the lockdown. These demands do not particularly suit Johnson and his ‘infectious optimism’, or ‘laziness and bluster’ (depending on who you ask). Starmer’s more restrained character and his legal background - in contrast with Johnson’s time writing colourful but often inaccurate reports as a journalist - are well suited to the political climate. Simple questions on the government’s testing regime are harder to bluster through than queries about the divisive Brexit negotiations, for example. The strangely quiet, mostly virtual, parliament also suits Starmer over Johnson. The roar of the backbenches cannot come to Johnson’s aid, nor can Matt Hancock whisper a rebuttal or statistic in his ear. The wit, the bear-pit, and the chaotic optimism that Corbyn struggled with, as Starmer may well in future, cannot help Johnson for now. 

As well as Starmer looking good, the government has looked bad. That Britain currently has the second highest number of recorded deaths in the world is a tragedy and a poor record to defend, particularly given the virus’ relatively late arrival in the UK. Internationally, criticism of the UK’s response is growing. Australian PM Scott Morrison labelled Britain’s apparent early preference for herd immunity a ‘death sentence.’ At home, facing economic uncertainty and hundreds of daily deaths, the public are increasingly unimpressed with the government’s response. Johnson’s personal ratings are down 7% since the start of the month, 39% now think he would make the best PM. Only 23% think the government has handled the NHS’ supply of PPE well, 69% think they have managed it badly. The low calibre of Johnson’s cabinet is also being revealed.  The experienced Hunt was removed from his post as Health Secretary, seemingly for having the temerity to run against Johnson for leader. Chancellor Javid was forced out for wanting to maintain control of his department. As Raab’s rambling contradictions about visiting your parents and Hancock’s uncertainty as to whether over-70s should self-isolate emphasised, this cabinet is perhaps not the most qualified group in Britain to be tasked with suppressing the virus. 

"Leaks, briefings, and counter-briefings to the press create an image of Conservative disunity..."

Opposition is easier than government, and Starmer is less exposed to the difficult decisions that Johnson faces. The country is divided, some are desperately keen to get back to a degree of normality, while others think any relaxation is immensely reckless. Action and inaction alike are condemned. The Telegraph is calling for Britain to get back to work, unions are firmly against schools reopening. An additional problem for Johnson is that the Tory party don’t like lockdown. One Conservative MP argued we must not set a precedent of public health measures trumping the liberty that is ‘fundamental to our very souls.’ Others worry more about the economy. Leaks, briefings, and counter-briefings to the press create an image of Conservative disunity and raise questions about the government’s approach. 

At the same time, Starmer has reasserted control over the Labour party from the centre. A shadow minister observed that where MPs used to feel free to sign up to motions and letters without consulting the leadership, Starmer’s regime has restricted MPs’ independent action. Centralisation is the order of the day. All new policies must not be developed ‘in isolation,’ but with the engagement of the front bench ‘as part of Labour’s overall economic offer to the country.’ This is an implicit criticism of what Starmer described as a ‘policy overload’ in the last election; even if every policy is independently popular, cumulatively they reduce confidence in the party’s ability to enact them. In the shadow cabinet ministers have been told to arrive promptly, and talk clearly. Lord Falconer, who has served under both Corbyn and Starmer, remarked ‘all the meetings, which had previously been a shambles, are now being run properly.’ Starmer’s more disciplined approach to party-management also hopes to avoid the infighting and confusion seen towards the end of Corbyn’s regime. The chaos reached its peak at their autumn conference in a vote on the party’s Brexit position. This crucial policy was determined by a show of hands, and it wasn’t clear who’d won. Nichols, overseeing the vote, apologised, ‘Sorry, I thought it was one way and Jenny [a Corbyn ally] said something else.’ Half the room was furious, the other half chanted ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn.’


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The 2019 election seems a political eternity ago. It is far too early to say whether the Conservatives will face a sterner challenge from Starmer in the next election. But he is currently well-positioned, helped by government errors, and political circumstances that, though immensely unfortunate, suit his temperament and political skill set far more than Johnson’s. The Conservatives’ air of impregnability has dissipated in the past months. Whether Starmer can push on and turn the Labour party into a government in waiting is a different question. For now, however, it seems he is in a better position than Corbyn was: a YouGov poll suggests a third see Starmer as a Prime Minister in waiting (another third don’t know). These may not be election-winning figures, but they are significantly higher than the 9% who saw Corbyn in that light on the eve of the 2019 election.

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