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5 September 2022

Is Keir Starmer ready to take on Liz Truss?

The legalistic debating style of the Labour leader had currency against Boris Johnson, but a new opponent calls for new tactics.

By Rachel Wearmouth

We don’t know if the outgoing prime minister, Boris Johnson, sent a card to Keir Starmer on his 60th birthday last week. If he did, perhaps he comforted himself by including one of the many insults he used against the leader of the opposition at the despatch box – Captain Hindsight, Captain Crasheroony Snoozefest, the “pointless human bollard”.

But another poll, this one from Redfield and Wilton Strategies, indicates that the public believes Starmer would make a better prime minister than either of the Conservative leadership candidates – so it is the former director of public prosecutions who appears to be having the last laugh.

Labour’s recovery in the polls under Starmer’s leadership – after the party experienced its worst defeat since 1935 in 2019 – has been slow, but remarkable. It is possible that Starmer could enter No 10. Yet the narrative that he is failing stubbornly survives.

After catastrophically losing the Hartlepool by-election 16 months ago, Labour’s electoral prospects against Johnson looked bleak. Insiders feared the party would fall into irrelevance. Starmer further damaged his authority with a chaotic reshuffle, which caused friction with his deputy Angela Rayner and prompted speculation of a leadership challenge.

His position remained in question until Labour’s victory in the Batley and Spen by-election last July, albeit with a majority of just 323 votes. Kim Leadbeater, the sister of the MP Jo Cox who was murdered in 2016, was elected, which felt symbolic for many activists. It galvanised those more sympathetic to Starmer and supporters began to recover a sense of purpose.

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Starmer’s battles with the left were unavoidable. Removing Jeremy Corbyn from the Parliamentary Labour Party over his response to the EHRC’s report on anti-Semitism was a divisive move. But Starmer has remained firm. He later took on MPs from the Socialist Campaign Group who signed a Stop The War letter which criticised what they claimed was NATO expansionism in the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Threatened with losing the Labour whip, the 11 MPs U-turned and removed their names.

[See also: The five big economic problems Liz Truss faces – and how she plans to fight them]

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The party’s left continue to publicly criticise Starmer’s lack of radicalism – and many voters living in fear of the cost-of-living crisis share their scepticism. They resent that Starmer has moved away from the 10 pledges that encouraged Labour members to give him power.

But Labour is now ahead in the polls and conflict clarifies for the electorate where a leader stands. Starmer’s strategists will be satisfied to see his positions regularly underlined to Tory swing voters, and that he has no intention of being a crowd-pleaser for those already convinced to vote Labour.

Starmer has, however, struggled to forge close links with trade unions, as evidenced by his ban on frontbenchers from joining picket lines during strikes over pay. His instincts are those of a lawyer, not a campaigner who understands the labour movement. Many long-standing activists, who Starmer must inspire to campaign for him, find him remote and too timid in his policy offer. It is a tension he will need to resolve – and stop enflaming – if he is to win.

Starmer’s experience as a barrister no doubt helped him challenge Boris Johnson over the Tory sleaze allegations and partygate at the despatch box. And when Durham Police exonerated him over the beergate row – arguably the most dangerous moment for his career – it reinforced his rule abiding image. Labour’s recovery in Scotland, however, where the independence debate still dominates, has not yet materialised. But Labour had a strong set of local elections and won back Wakefield in June.

The latest set of elections to the National Executive Committee (NEC) last night put more Starmer allies on the party’s ruling body. This was vital for Starmer as the NEC will help form his election manifesto in the months ahead, and he has already attracted anger for rejecting the programme of nationalisation many Labour members want. The election of Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, who was a former member of the controversial Jewish Voice for Labour group, has led to suggestions that despite huge strides in tackling anti-Semitism in the party an “extreme segment” remained.

Liz Truss will enter Downing Street this week, therefore an election could be months, or even weeks, away. The new leader may get a boost in the polls as the Tories aim to reimagine themselves yet again. But it’s hard to identify anyone in the Labour Party better placed than Starmer to take her on. The path to victory for Labour is far from certain.

Starmer’s legalistic approach to PMQs had currency when contrasted with Johnson’s constant chaos. Should he take the risk of changing tack with a new prime minister? Funding is also a major issue if a snap election is called, with Labour’s accounts last month showing the party recorded a £5.2m deficit last year despite a £4.3m increase in donations.

When Starmer celebrated his birthday last week, he may have felt entitled to a few glasses of his favourite tipple. But I doubt he is tempted to break out the champagne just yet.

[See also: What could Liz Truss’s cabinet look like?]

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