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Is Keir Starmer the heir to Boris Johnson?

The Tories’ 2019 victory was due to the popularity of their policies, not their leader. Labour could use the same strategy.

By Freddie Hayward

One myth of the Conservatives’ victory in 2019 was that Boris Johnson was wot won it. This myth made Tory MPs keep him in power even when it became clear he was unfit for the job. They didn’t want to lose a proven election winner.

But Johnson wasn’t particularly popular in 2019. The Conservatives won because they promised to get Brexit done, Jeremy Corbyn was deeply unattractive and the party offered a message on public services, crime and the NHS that resonated with voters. Johnson became synonymous with Brexit but he himself was less popular on election day than either Theresa May and Corbyn had been in 2017.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s manifesto: Labour’s Five Missions]

Another leader who isn’t that popular but who is becoming more authoritarian on cultural issues, benefitting from a disunited opposition and promising to fix public services is Keir Starmer. Labour’s offer on crime, the NHS and not raising taxes for working people mirrors the Conservatives offer in 2019. Neither Liz Truss nor Rishi Sunak have made an attempt to deliver or defend the 2019 manifesto, depriving the Tories of the opportunity to say to voters “let us finish the job” because what job is there to finish? Instead, Sunak’s sell is to solve short-term problems for the country, which creates the space for Labour to take up the mantle of 2019.

But the comparison quickly runs out of road. I’m sure you’ve noticed but politics has changed a lot in the past four years. Brexit has been replaced by the cost-of-living crisis as the key issue for voters. Instead of simply wanting Brexit done, polling suggests that people are increasingly regretting their decision to vote Leave. Starmer’s approach to Brexit is essentially that he accepts it has happened and Labour won’t be trying to rejoin the EU – quite different from the bomb-throwing renegade Johnson, who embodied an anti-establishment feeling. And, to put it mildly, Starmer has a closer relationship to integrity in public life and a more distant relationship with charisma.

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Perhaps most importantly in terms of the politics, there’s a gulf between the messaging around policy. Labour’s five national missions (hit reply and tell me what they are without googling) don’t quite have the same ring as “40 more hospitals” or “20,000 more police officers”. They might eventually be distilled into bitesize policies, but they aren’t there yet.

[See also: What does Keir Starmer stand for?]

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