I’ve seen this film before. We all have. Two men, thrown together by a quirk of fate, must get the job done. They are fundamentally incompatible. One serious, lawyerly, smart-suited, morally righteous to the point of dullness. The other an agent of chaos: scruffy, careless, bumbling through his life leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. It is a trope as old as cinema itself. Now we are all extras in the farce.
Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer, we are assured, hate each other. “He genuinely does not like Keir,” an ally of Johnson’s told the Sunday Times. “He sees this man as part of a privileged, metropolitan, narrow-minded elite uncomfortable with the raw instincts of the vast majority of British people.” Those who know Starmer give a similarly brutal assessment of his views of Johnson.
This is an unfortunate state of affairs — not just for the rest of us, forced to see out our days as minor characters in a derivative buddy film, but also for the two men themselves. Hating your political opponents makes for bad political strategy. It was Starmer’s dislike of Johnson that caused him to attack the Prime Minister quite so enthusiastically over the Downing Street parties, which looks rather foolhardy now Starmer himself has been drawn into the line of fire over his curry in Durham. Had cooler heads prevailed, Starmer might have stopped short of calling for Johnson to resign purely for being under police investigation, or at least chosen his words more carefully and made it clear he was condemning a pattern of behaviour, not a single error.
Johnson is equally blinded. Recall his condemnation of Starmer for having failed to prosecute Jimmy Saville, a grim conspiracy theory with its roots in the even grimmer depths of the internet. He lost his policy chief over those comments, as well as the respect of many of his MPs. He did not need to say it. But he could not help himself.
Many Tory MPs have the same problem. They mock Starmer as “Sir Keir” and make jokes about his time as Director of Public Prosecutions. Their suggestion is that these things make him an out-of-touch member of the elite, but for many people they serve as a reminder that Starmer has a history of public service. Because of their genuine dislike of him, Conservatives are unable to see this crucial flaw in the attack.
If you cannot see why your opponent would appeal to voters, you are less effective at persuading those voters — you cannot change someone’s mind if you do not understand their current position. Jeremy Corbyn suffered from this attitude. His failure to comprehend why anyone would ever vote Conservative made him incapable of meeting voters on their own terms and persuading them to vote for him instead. Gordon Brown similarly struggled to understand how anyone could vote for David Cameron. Tony Blair understood very well why people might vote Conservative. The electoral results speak for themselves.
There is much talk in Westminster that the new generation of MPs are more tribal, less able to understand their political opponents. The pandemic took from them many of the opportunities MPs usually have early on to get to know their political opposites: select committee trips and meetings, random encounters in the tea room. Instead, the 2019 intake remained in their constituencies, talking to their local party members and to the carefully curated faithful on social media.
We do not, of course, want our leaders to like each other too much. A chumocracy, real or perceived, is a threat to a well-functioning society. But if they are to be effective, our leaders need to at least hold each other in mutual respect and understand the value of their opponents. MPs who refuse to work cross-party will find it harder to achieve their aims in parliament. Indeed, more broadly, personal dislike can be an impediment to effective government. Take the example of Dominic Cummings. Many in Whitehall agree that his diagnosis of the problems with the civil service was correct, and that his proposed reforms were sensible. However, such was his personal animosity to the civil service that he ended up fighting with numerous senior civil servants. He was unable to bring the civil service with him and so ended up leaving government without achieving his goals.
Where does this leave Johnson and Starmer? We think we know how this film ends. The lawyer teaches the clown to take responsibility for his actions. The clown teaches the lawyer to lighten up and live a little. We all emerge from the cinema, blinking in the afternoon light, full of a warm fuzzy feeling and a nebulous message about the power of respect. That’s how the script goes, anyway. I wouldn’t bet on either leader getting their lines right.