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16 September 2023

The Tories are wrong to see Keir Starmer as their secret weapon

We shouldn’t be surprised that the Labour leader doesn’t look prime ministerial. He isn’t prime minister yet.

By Jonn Elledge

It is perhaps not a great sign for the Prime Minister that one of the variant headlines doing the rounds for the Financial Times’ lengthy profile of him is, “Rishi Sunak says he has a plan to stay in power. No, really.” The bit that caught my attention, however, isn’t about Sunak at all, but his rival. “Sir Gary Streeter, who has been a Tory MP for 30 years, believes there are three words that explain why this isn’t a rerun of the 1997 election. ‘Sir. Keir. Starmer.’” The implication is that Starmer is a lightweight who lacks the charisma and gravitas of either (checks notes) Sunak or of three-time election winner Tony Blair. Never mind the polling which shows that Starmer is both more popular and less disliked than Sunak: his leadership, so this take suggests, may yet be enough to cost Labour the election.

Before I get into the weeds on this one, a disclaimer. A few weeks ago I wrote a column arguing that a Labour majority would change everything: that things that seem impossible now would suddenly become possible then. I stand by that; but whether because I wrote it badly, or because people on the internet are mad, some came away with the impression that I thought Starmer was secretly planning to do everything I wanted, and not betray me like he had everyone else. (This, distressingly, would make me the Nadine Dorries to his Boris Johnson.) To be absolutely clear, then: none of what follows is intended as an endorsement of Labour policy, or strategy, or the beliefs or personal qualities of Starmer. 

[See also: What’s behind Labour’s new Brexit position?]

Nonetheless. You can find comments such as Streeter’s about pretty much every successful leader of the opposition from the last half-century, and probably long before that. Every challenger looks lightweight until they’ve won an election. To put it at its simplest: of course Keir Starmer doesn’t look prime ministerial. He isn’t prime minister yet.

You are of course desperate for some evidence to back up this point, so let’s take a trip down memory lane. The David Cameron of the late 2000s was laughed at for being an unconvincing Tony Blair tribute act who went round hugging huskies and hoodies alike. Much of Labour’s campaign against him was based on contrasting his flimsiness with the weight and experience of Gordon Brown.

A decade and a bit before that, Armando Iannucci’s BBC show The Friday Night Armistice featured a cuddly Humpty-from-Playschool-like doll called “Mr Tony Blair”, while the man himself was frequently dismissed as “Bambi”. (In reference to his youth and photogenic appearance.) There were other attacks, such as the demon-eyed “New Labour, New Danger” poster; but still, the man who’d lead the Labour Party to the biggest election victory in its history was seen as a fluffy, lightweight figure right up until the polls closed.

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[See also: Labour’s immigration gamble isn’t supposed to appeal to everyone]

Even the Iron Lady herself was mocked, before 1979, as “Attila the Hen”, and seemed weightless next to the towering figure of Jim Callaghan, the only prime minister to have held all three other great offices of state. So off-putting was Margaret Thatcher’s reedy, hectoring voice believed to be, that she had vocal training to deepen it. This is not the version of Thatcher we remember today: but it took electoral success, and quite possibly the Falklands War, to make her.

Ronald Reagan was some actor, not even an especially good one; Barack Obama a writer with a nice turn of phrase and limited political experience. Even today, Clement Attlee is remembered as the butt of dubiously attributed witticisms about his own absence (”a modest little man with much to be modest about”; “an empty taxi pulled up, and Mr Attlee got out”). This did not prevent him from defeating Winston Churchill and creating the NHS

None of which is a comment on Starmer, or his goals, or his chances of victory, come to that: I could find similar jokes and quotes about those leaders who didn’t win elections, too. But the point is that every leader of the opposition struggles to look prime ministerial when placed next to the person who lives at 10 Downing Street and leads the UK government. It is much, much easier to appear prime ministerial when you’re actually prime minister. Of course the other guy looks weak in comparison.

Just occasionally – though not often, especially if they’re wearing a red rosette, – those people go on to win elections all the same, and posterity tends to forget how they looked before they held the top job. Cameron is austerity and Brexit, not the hugger-in-chief; Blair not Bambi, but Iraq; Thatcher a decade of economic change and social turmoil, all bundled up in her very own -ism. In every case the reputation, the gravitas, followed from their premiership rather than preceding it. 

Whether the same will be true of Starmer remains uncertain. But the outcome will have far less to do with what commentators make of him now than it does with how many Labour MPs are elected under his leadership, and on what he does with power. Anyone taking comfort from the fact Keir Starmer does not currently look like a prime minister may be in for a nasty surprise.

[See also: Ed Balls and George Osborne’s banal centrism]

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