In the middle of a pandemic, Sir Keir Starmer’s start as leader of the British Labour Party has been inevitably muted. The news is dominated by the epidemic and the government’s response. There isn’t much time for any opposition party. But in these early days the portents look very good for Labour. Its members have made a very good choice.
Most of the attention has been drawn to Sir Keir’s performance at the weekly ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). In the first two weeks the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was ill and could not attend. But instead of handing over to his deputy, as previous leaders have done, Sir Kier took it on himself. This was an interesting side-stepping of the usual parliamentary protocol games. And then when Mr Johnson did become available, he easily overwhelmed the prime minister. His style was quiet but focused. “Forensic” was the description universally used, referencing Sir Keir’s former job as QC and Director of Public Prosecutions. It is a style to which a bluffer like Mr Johnson partially ill-matched.
How much does PMQs matter in the great scheme of things? The public barely notices. But it damages the morale of Conservative backbenchers, and the pressure on an immature government team could lead to it to make silly errors. The idea floated by the government that all MPs should return to Westminster, so that the boisterous atmosphere of PMQs might be restored, and so make things look a bit less bad, looks to be just such a silly error.
A second portent comes from Sir Keir’s cleaning out of the front bench team. His predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, valued loyalty over competence and the front bench was full of weak performers. Sir Keir’s team looks much stronger, though the parliamentary Labour Party is not as strong as it once was, so choice is constrained. But Mr Johnson is also a loyalty over competence operator, and his own front bench looks particularly weak. Which for a “no-details” style of leadership is a big problem. Sir Keir’s aim is to challenge the government’s competence by contrasting it with his own.
A third, and highly significant portent comes from Sir Keir’s refusal to challenge the government on the Brexit transition. Many are saying that the transition period should be extended, not least because of the virus, as there is not enough time to negotiate a trade deal by the end of the year. It’s a fair line of attack, but Sir Keir’s failure to take it up shows that he is the first Labour leader since Tony Blair to have a clear sense of political strategy.
As opposition leader, Mr Blair was very careful to pick his fights with John Major’s Conservative government only on a very limited range of issues. His aim was to take the fight to the Conservatives and win over their former supporters. To that end he projected similar policies but superiority in style and competence. The next Labour opposition leaders were Ed Miliband and Mr Corbyn. Neither were prepared to take the challenge to the Tories. Instead they hoped to win by rounding up a “progressive majority” from Lib Dem and Green voters, and from people who had previously not voted. Anybody who supported the Tories was suspect, and the party did not want to make the compromises needed to win them over. Instead they challenged the government on a very broad front, portraying them as something close to evil. This motivated the activists. They succeeded in winning over many Lib Dems and Greens, and even (especially in 2017) bringing out previous non voters. But these were neutralised by people put off by their perceived extremism, who moved over to the Tories.
By showing restraint in his attacks on the Conservatives, on Brexit, and indeed on the Coronavirus crisis, Sir Keir shows that he has grasped this. The priority is to win power, and this can only be done by persuading former Conservative voters to come over. And it is particularly important not to put off people who support Brexit.
Let’s look ahead to see how this strategy might play out. The most likely scenario is that Mr Johnson’s government will muddle through the crisis, and intervene enough to limit the damage to the economy. In this event Sir Keir’s message will be “the same, only different”. He will pursue the government on issues of competence rather than policy. Mr Johnson looks very vulnerable here, and with a little luck his government could go into free fall like Mr Major’s, and never recover.
A second possibility is that the Conservatives will lurch to the right. After a hard Brexit, the government tries to roll back the extension to government seen as the crisis has developed, in the hope of creative destruction from which a leaner, healthier economy emerges in time for the next election. There are undoubtedly some Conservatives who want to go down this route. But it would be highly unpopular in the country at large. If this develops, then Sir Keir will broaden his attack to favour stronger public services as well as competence.
A third possibility is that the stress of the Coronavirus crisis causes the government to completely unravel, leading to a Conservative rebellion which results in a National Unity government involving Labour. This is after all what happened in both the world wars in the last century, when the prime minister (Asquith then Chamberlain) was perceived to be out of his depth. There is no Lloyd George or Churchill in the wings, though, so this does look rather unlikely. If this happens it will provide Sir Keir an opportunity to demonstrate fitness for government, while doubtless the Conservatives would tear themselves apart.
Should Labour leftists feel betrayal? Certainly they will see their wilder causes sidelined or squashed. Sir Keir has signalled a tough line on antisemitism; this covers those who criticise Israel obsessively while taking an indulgent approach to countries like Russia and Venezuela. But they should stay calm. Once in power it will be quite easy to tilt policy in a socialist direction in the aftermath of this crisis. Getting power is the main thing, and then consolidating it. Mr Blair and Gordon Brown showed the way. It is not widely appreciated on the left just how far Mr Brown in particular advanced the boundaries of the state and the cause of practical socialism.
How should Lib Dems react? it is commonplace to hear the thought that the party flourishes if Labour leadership is moderate, after the party failed to make much impression when Mr Corbyn was in charge. This is clutching at straws. If Sir Kei8r’s leadership develops as I expect, the Lib Dems’ only chance is if Sir Keir is indulgent towards the party because he thinks it could be useful. He might if he thinks that it could keep the Conservatives out of 20 or more seats that Labour would struggle to win themselves. He would certainly much rather deal with the party in a hung parliament than the Scottish Nationalists. The Lib Dems might get some political space around immigration, since Sir Keir will not want to open up too big a gap the Tories there. Brexit will be a more troublesome issue for the Lib Dems. Otherwise there will be little open space.
What you will not see is Sir Keir taking up electoral reform. He might duck and weave, as Mr Blair did, or he might rule it out. He will not want to distract attention from his core message that the Tories are not fit to govern.
Of course, in the early days of a new leader it is very easy to project your expectations onto him or her. Perhaps that is what I am doing here. But this is my working hypothesis, and Mr Johnson should be very afraid.