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Keir Starmer doesn’t choose his battle before he knows he has won – and he has the Tories worried

For the first time in more than a decade, Labour has a leader with a higher net approval rating than the party as a whole.

By Stephen Bush

In politics, the gap between a politician’s virtues and vices is measured only by success. A few months ago, it was common for Conservative MPs to claim that one of Boris Johnson’s strengths was that he didn’t sweat the small stuff, which meant Downing Street avoided being pulled into passing rows that waste time and energy. But in the present day, it’s hard to find Tory MPs who think that the Prime Minister’s lack of attention to detail is a strength rather than a weakness.

When Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats were doing well in the polls and her close personal allegiances with liberal-minded politicians across the Commons was helping to attract defectors, she was guided by a “close-knit team” of talented advisers. Now, a damning report into the party’s disastrous general election has turned a positive into a negative: decisions about the party’s future were made by an “inner circle” who brooked no dissent.

For the moment, Keir Starmer’s vices are all virtues – at least as far as the average Labour MP is concerned. For the first time in more than a decade, Labour has a leader with a higher net approval rating than the party as a whole. Its prime minister-designate is, for now, an asset rather than a drag anchor. Starmer has made a string of impressive parliamentary performances, discomfiting first Dominic Raab, then Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions. And these competent performances have lifted morale after the discord of the past few years. 

Recent events have allowed Starmer to show off several of his good qualities. He is a master of detail, as one would expect of a former director of public prosecutions, and is up against a prime minister who prefers to use bombast and bluster in the Commons rather than to have his finger on the pulse of the government. Starmer is also adept at anticipating where the political battlefield will be. “Keir doesn’t go to war before he’s won,” as one longtime ally put it. His first political demand, that the government publishes an exit strategy from lockdown, has become the animating political question of the day. 

The government remains ahead in the polls, but the private consensus in both parties is that the global trend for voters to reward incumbents during the early stages of the crisis will begin to unwind.

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Starmer’s approach in the chamber reinforces a political narrative that might well help him ultimately defeat Johnson: that the Prime Minister is a shallow dilettante and the leader of the opposition is a serious operator for difficult times. Starmer is frequently cited as one of the inspirations for Mark Darcy, the love interest in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (based on Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy). If he keeps it up, you can see how the country might decide to exchange the flashy unseriousness of Johnson’s George Wickham for Starmer’s Darcy. There is an argument for the Conservatives in due course to replace Johnson with a steady administrator of their own: a role which either the current Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, or his predecessor, Sajid Javid, might, in different ways, occupy. 

Meanwhile, Starmer has correctly predicted what the big issues of contention will be, whether on the debate over schools reopening or the relations between the devolved governments. But it’s less clear what his position is on those issues. 

On devolution, Starmer seems to be characterised by opportunism, criticising the government in Westminster for having a different approach from those in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast, but without acknowledging that there are coherent public health reasons for the UK’s four nations to exit lockdown at different speeds and with different strategies. On education and the reopening of schools, the Labour Party’s position is an exercise in avoiding blame. 

The challenge of life in opposition, especially during this crisis, is: should Starmer’s day-to-day priority be scrutinising the government, or constructing the case for its dismissal? Thus far, he has opted for the latter – and because he looks to be on broadly the right track, most Labour MPs are happy about that. 

Starmer’s team of advisers is seen as “close-knit” rather than a narrow cult. But who really has his ear? His inner circle is, at present, incomplete: the party is slowly hiring new parliamentary advisers and policy wonks to fill its top posts. 

Starmer has a tendency to recruit those who broadly share his outlook and approach. Morgan McSweeney, his chief of staff, has long been considered one of the finest strategic minds on the right of the party and has been spoken of as a future general secretary for almost a decade. McSweeney, who was involved in Liz Kendall’s leadership campaign in 2015, has spent much of the past five years working out how to win back control of the Labour Party. He put that experience to good use during Starmer’s leadership campaign. 

Simon Fletcher, Starmer’s campaigns adviser, hails from the left – he was Jeremy Corbyn’s chief of staff in 2015 – but is similarly feted as a smart political strategist. Claire Ainsley, Starmer’s policy chief, is a former executive director of the anti-poverty charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. She defies easy categorisation, but those who know her use the same adjectives that are applied to McSweeney and Fletcher: “decent”, “competent”, “thoughtful”.

What is not yet clear is which of Starmer’s inner circle has the most influence – because so far he has managed to navigate the party across some tricky terrain without provoking major divides within his team. It often takes a political setback to reveal a leader’s true influences and sympathies – just as it takes a crisis to expose their vices.

This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show