The Labour leader will not succeed on the basis of wary pragmatism aloneby Jonathan Lis / July 9, 2020 / Leave a comment
You have to feel for Keir Starmer. Three months ago he became leader of a party which had just plunged to its worst defeat in 85 years, amidst the worst pandemic in a century and a country more divided than at any point in living memory. So, coming up to 100 days in, how is he doing?
On the basis of polling, very well. An Opinium poll at the end of June found that 37 percent of people thought Starmer would make the better prime minister, compared to 35 percent for Boris Johnson. This is the first time a Labour leader has outpolled his Conservative opponent since 2007. And although the Tories are still outpolling Labour by between four and seven points, in early April that figure was 24 points. By any measure, such a rapid turnaround represents an achievement.
When you consider the context this feels even more impressive. You could hardly imagine more difficult circumstances for becoming the opposition leader. At a time of national crisis, the public instinctively rallies behind the government, and of course we all want our leaders to succeed, because in this case not succeeding means that people unnecessarily die. Starmer knew that it would have been a dangerous look to mount strident attacks, which many would have painted as gratuitous. As if to make his introduction even harder, Johnson was admitted to hospital the day after Starmer became leader. For weeks afterwards, the prime minister was politically untouchable, despite the egregious errors which had landed the UK with Europe’s worst death toll.
Now, things feel different. In the last six weeks the government has, on occasion, looked close to falling apart. The scandals over Dominic Cummings, personal protective equipment and care homes have made a majority of 80 look genuinely fragile. Johnson, in particular, has made so many unforced errors that few commentators are certain he will still be in office at the next election. As the worst recession in 300 years starts to hit, and unemployment skyrockets, the news for the government will only get tougher.
Starmer therefore walks a tightrope. On the one hand he must do everything to encourage the government and prevent the most calamitous effects of the virus. On the other, he must prepare for those consequences and capitalise politically. But as…