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6 December 2022

Is Keir Starmer brilliant or just lucky?

The Labour leader’s advance owes more to Tory failure than to any success on his part.

By Harry Lambert

Helen Lewis, formerly of this parish, has a new take out on Keir Starmer. With Labour 20 points ahead in polls, Lewis has identified a quiet, winning ruthlessness in Starmer. The piece is full of good lines: “Starmer fritzes the brains of political commentators by doing things for a specific political motive but declining to supply the motive by narrating his actions (or letting his advisers supply the motive by briefing it out). You rarely hear Starmer saying something overtly factional – it’s all soothing blah about unity and common purpose – but meanwhile he’s slotting a bullet in the chamber.”

Starmer, Lewis advises, should be treated “like a stage magician. Don’t listen to the patter, watch his hands. His team likes to pick fights while disclaiming any knowledge that their actions are controversial… Railing against Starmer’s pivots, hidden lever-pulling and intentional vagueness is railing against him doing politics – and on the evidence of the polls so far, doing it well.”

Lewis’s case is quite compelling – look at how Starmer has discarded the dreck of the Labour left, from Rebecca Long-Bailey, who was incredibly once discussed as a possible leader of the party, to Jeremy Corbyn, who incredibly once led it – but it is also strange to read it when you remember how the Labour leader was viewed for much of last year. 

Eighteen months ago, in the wake of Labour’s by-election defeat in Hartlepool, Tony Blair was disparaging Starmer in these pages in all but name. “The Labour Party is now,” Blair wrote then, “asking whether Keir is the right leader. But the Labour Party won’t revive simply by a change of leader. It needs total deconstruction and reconstruction. Nothing less will do.” Starmer, Blair argued, “seems sensible but not radical. He lacks a compelling economic message. And the cultural message, because he is not clarifying it, is being defined by the ‘woke’ left.”

[See also: Keir Starmer interview: “Am I aiming to be just a one-term prime minister? No, of course not.”]

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At the time, Labour trailed the Conservatives by 10 points in the polls. It now leads by more than 20. Yet Starmer has done almost nothing to set out a “compelling economic message”, nor has he clarified a cultural message that contrasts with the “woke” left, whatever Blair meant by that.

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Blair, the supposed master of political prognostication, did not foresee Labour’s complete reconstruction as a party of power – certainly not in a world in which Starmer has deliberately said almost nothing of note for 18 months. So why has Starmer risen? Is he, as Lewis suggests, a ruthless magician – or is he just lucky?

Imagine an alternate world where the Tory party did not collapse over the past 12 months. What would we be saying about Starmer then? His focus on weeding out Labour’s internal foes would seem myopic, if not utterly inadequate. His reluctance to set out any markers for how Labour would govern – any totemic policies or set of unifying ideas – would not be praised as discipline but derided as hesitancy. His inability to appear at ease on camera would feel fundamental and perhaps insurmountable under Britain’s increasingly presidential approach to voting.

But the Tory party has collapsed, allowing Starmer to paper over his shortcomings. We have just lived through one of the most decisive years of the past decade (along with 2016 and 2019). It has been Starmer’s good fortune to be Labour leader in the year of three Tory prime ministers and four chancellors. This year has proved an old rule: that political reputations are built on the failings of others, at least as much as they are built on the achievements of the praised.

Blair himself should know this. He came to power two years after the Tories’ reputation for competence had been devastated by Black Wednesday. If John Smith had not died in 1994, many suspect he would have become prime minister in 1997, rather than Blair – Labour’s success in the 1990s may have had less to do with Blair’s brilliance than the passage of time. In the mid-1990s the political pendulum was swinging, as it always does in the end, away from one party and towards the only alternative. The Tories had fallen out of favour after four successive election victories (1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992) – as is happening now, after another set of Tory wins (2010, 2015, 2017, 2019). Starmer can, of course, be credited with not failing in the face of victory, but he can’t be credited with much more than that, and his caution and unease could still hurt him.

As extraordinary as it may sound, Rishi Sunak does not need to call a general election until late January 2025. That is still more than two years away. There is plenty of time for another shift in the narrative. A year and a half is a long time in itself, as the past 18 months have shown. If Labour’s ascent in the polls, or the Tories’ demise, was down to Starmer, you could have some confidence that his party is likely to coast to victory. But this has been a year of Tory self-immolation, rather than of any skill on Starmer’s part. He has been lucky, and his luck could yet change.

[See also: Labour adds £5m to its election war chest]

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