One of the phrases I often hear applied to Keir Starmer is that he has made Labour “normal again”. Unlike his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, he is comfortable using parliamentary procedure and the theatre of Westminster to advance his agenda. Starmer’s leadership, unlike Corbyn’s, rests not solely on his support among Labour members but on his domination of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Frontbenchers are no longer allowed to overstep their briefs, and the PLP has both a greater stake in the leadership – Labour MPs could realistically end the Starmer project if they chose, which they couldn’t with Corbyn – and a concomitant loss of autonomy. And, crucially, Conservative MPs aren’t horrified by the prospect of a Starmer victory.
Almost everyone expected, whether they welcomed or opposed it, that a Starmer leadership would make British politics “normal again” after the Corbyn interregnum. What no one quite anticipated is that the coronavirus pandemic would also have a normalising effect.
In recent days, Boris Johnson has tweaked the guidance for life under lockdown, opening up traditional left-right dividing lines between his government and Starmer. Johnson’s exit strategy presupposes a quick return to work for people on construction sites and factory floors, while those able to work from home continue to do so. Labour’s support for a continued lockdown seeks to protect the health of all workers rather than prioritising an immediate return to full economic activity.
The problem is that the “normal” state of British politics is for Labour to lose elections and the Conservatives to win them. One of the handful of Labour leaders to break that streak was Harold Wilson, whom Starmer namechecked as an inspiration during his run for the leadership. But it was the legacy of Wilson’s immediate predecessor, Hugh Gaitskell, that helped to introduce Starmer to the general public this week. During the height of the Suez crisis, in 1956, the prime minister Anthony Eden provided frequent updates on the BBC about his doomed misadventure in Egypt. Gaitskell, the Labour leader of the opposition, secured a slot of his own; a precedent that has since been codified in the corporation’s charter. Starmer, who has made a habit of finding advantage in arcane procedures, used Gaitskell’s example to deliver his own broadcast on 11 May.
The lessons Starmer has learned from Gaitskell go beyond merely bagging prime-time television appearances. Like Gaitskell before him, Starmer must lead the opposition at a time when the public remains largely supportive of the government – even though he believes that the Prime Minister is plotting a dangerous course.
But the government’s popularity might prove temporary. Even those MPs who believe that Johnson has done a reasonably good job concede that, after a while, the grind of life in lockdown and the negative consequences of government decisions will puncture his balloon. “Starmer’s problem is that he risks looking opportunistic because the stakes are so high,” one minister reflected to me recently. “Our problem is that every mistake we make is catastrophic because the stakes are so high. I’d rather have his problem than ours.”
More optimistic Tories think that voters will ultimately give the government the benefit of the doubt because of the severity of the crisis. Yet Johnson is not helping himself or his party. The government’s new slogan, “Stay alert”, is so broad as to be meaningless. It is trying to communicate too many messages at once: to encourage people who can to stay at home, without either spooking those who have to leave the house to work or appearing callous about the risks they face.
The mixed messages last weekend were accompanied by a fall in support for the government. Whether Johnson’s TV address on 10 May was the direct cause is uncertain, but the backdrop was of growing numbers of voters starting to have serious doubts about government strategy and competence.
Those concerns are shared at the top of the Conservative Party. The cabinet is badly divided, with some favouring a prolonged lockdown – until a vaccine or palliative treatment is found – and others a swift exit. Pro-lockdown MPs blame those who want a swift exit for both the timing of Johnson’s statement and for a series of leaks and rumours about the government’s strategy. “We marched people up to the hill and said: nothing new!” one Conservative said, despairingly, of Johnson’s TV broadcast.
Johnson now has the distinction of having irritated both sides, while the general sense of trouble ahead is increased by the regional and economic divides inherent in the government’s strategy. The road to economic recovery means that people who cannot work from home but who earn a little above average are bearing the heaviest economic risk. These voters are concentrated outside London, tend to be male and work in manufacturing, or as plumbers or builders – the trades that contributed to the Conservative majority in 2019.
The lockdown already weighs heaviest on those with the least, who live in smaller accommodation and have less to spend on home luxuries. The new guidelines add to the disparity – the chunk of the population that can work from home is largely from the top half of the income distribution, the part that can’t is mostly from the bottom half.
Adding to the unease of some MPs in marginal seats, the voters lost by Johnson’s Tory party – those in professional jobs in London and the other large cities of England – are the ones taking a smaller share of the risk. To ask one’s own voters to bear a bigger risk than those of your opponents is brave. To do so with such a muddled message is braver – or more foolhardy – still.
This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion