One of the many problems for Jeremy Corbyn was that he was never able to convince his own MPs that he was the right man to lead the Labour Party. A party divided, as Corbyn’s was, cannot stand and cannot win. His allies believe he was never given time and space enough to establish his credentials. It’s true that many Labour MPs were from the beginning set on “bombing him out” of office, as the MP Jon Cruddas, who was no Corbynite but believed Corbyn deserved a fair chance, once put it to me. But Corbyn was always destined to be imprisoned not only by his past associations as an agitator and fellow traveller of radical causes, but by his indolence. He may have entered the Commons in 1983, alongside Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and yet by the time he became Labour’s accidental leader in 2015, he was still notably inexperienced and had never occupied a position of authority – unlike his old friend John McDonnell, who had been chair of the finance committee and deputy leader at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone.
Corbyn’s first appearance at the despatch box came when he led Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) four days after becoming Labour leader. He was 66. David Cameron, impressed by his opponent’s calm performance, remarked afterwards that Corbyn’s hands “were not even shaking”.
“I don’t get nervous,” Corbyn told me when I asked him about that first appearance. “I just thought, ‘Well, we’ve been through so much.’ I finally got in there and sat down, ready to go up at the despatch box, and looked around and the place was absolutely packed. You couldn’t move. Every single seat was taken. I thought, ‘Wow.’ There must have been about 2,000 people there in total, I suppose, inside the chamber. The galleries and everything, completely full. I thought, ‘Wow – 2,000 people. And about 1,900 of them don’t want me to do well!’”
Corbyn would painfully discover that successful leadership requires much more than charisma and personal conviction, as Boris Johnson is also discovering to his cost. To command authority and followership one has to demonstrate basic competence, especially among those colleagues who might disagree with you and perhaps not even like you. So far, Keir Starmer has impressed his shadow cabinet through his work ethic, diligent mastery of detail and composure under pressure. “In a democracy, real leadership is slow, quiet, diplomatic, collegial, and often frustrating,” wrote James Mattis, the former US defence secretary under Donald Trump, in the Atlantic in December.
The new Labour leader has considerable patience, he is collegiate, and though he lacks charisma – he is not a noisy showman like Johnson or a populist radical like Corbyn – he does not lack authority. “Keir has brought us real clarity of purpose,” Jim McMahon, the fast-rising shadow transport secretary, told me. “It’s about professionalism and how we look to the country. He wants to show how to unite a party and to prove we are fit to govern.”
What I like about Starmer’s performances so far at PMQs is that his relentless, forensic style of questioning is not overheated. Nor does he resort to polemic or ad hominem attack. Rather, he meticulously commands the evidence to make an argument while also trying to tell a resonant story about government neglect and carelessness. The silence of the chamber enhances and dignifies his approach.
“There’s a pattern emerging here,” he said without raising his voice on 22 April to Dominic Raab, who was deputising for Johnson at PMQs. “We were slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment. And now slow to take up [PPE] offers from British firms.”
Starmer made the same argument in an interview in the 9-10 May issue of the FT Weekend Magazine, when he said: “The government has been slow in nearly all the major decisions.” This is an example of what Bill Clinton used to call message discipline and, as the government flounders, it will form part of the inevitable indictment of executive failure.
Like many, I was unimpressed by the incoherence of Johnson’s widely ridiculed broadcast to the nation on 10 May. Before he was struck down by Covid-19, I wrote in these pages that the Prime Minister was struggling to find an appropriate voice in which to speak for and to the nation. The struggle goes on. The purpose of his pre-recorded speech, after a week of selective briefings had resulted in sensationalist headlines about our supposed impending liberation from lockdown, was to provide greater clarity and reassurance. But Johnson’s fist-clenched performance and ambiguous phrase-making merely deepened the confusion: the broadcast was condemned by business and education leaders, trade associations and trades unions. Most distressingly, he succeeded in fracturing the unity among the four nations of the United Kingdom, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland rejecting the government’s new “Stay Alert” messaging. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was now speaking only to and for England.
The contrast with the Queen’s two recent pitch-perfect national broadcasts, the second on the 75th anniversary of VE Day, was striking. After the Queen’s address on Palm Sunday, our columnist Helen Thompson tweeted, “The point of a monarchy is to remind us we collectively live in the seasons of time, and many years in the future people will still talk about what the Queen broadcast on Palm Sunday in this hour of crisis.”
One day people may also talk about Johnson’s broadcast on Sunday 10 May, two days after the Queen had spoken to evoke the spirit of wartime fellow feeling, but as a warning from history about mixed messaging and a loss of control.
This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion