How Keir Starmer has transformed Labour into a credible opposition

For the first time in five bleak years, the Conservative government is being properly held to account. 

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Boris Johnson is everything that Keir Starmer is not: colourful, humorous, engaging, blessed with unshakeable optimism and a way with words. 

Happily, at this time of acute national crisis, Starmer is everything Johnson is not: serious, honest, dependable, capable of mastering briefs, a grown-up dedicated to public service and with a substantial record of achievement behind him.

He has been Labour leader for just six turbulent weeks, but he has already lifted the spirits of Britain’s moderates and progressives after all the traumatic defeats of the past five years. For the first time in that long, bleak period, a Conservative government is being properly held to account by the official opposition. A premier who does his level best to avoid scrutiny is being subjected to exactly that. At Prime Minister’s Questions, Starmer has skewered first the hapless Dominic Raab, Johnson’s stand-in during his illness, and latterly Johnson himself.

Using the prosecutorial skills and attention to detail he honed as a barrister, he has used the government’s own advice to underscore its failure to protect care homes. He has used its own figures to highlight 10,000 unexplained deaths in care homes. He has drawn attention to the government’s use of international comparisons until the moment those comparisons showed the UK’s Covid-19 death rate to be the worst in Europe. He does not do sound bites, but his sorrowful observation – “How on earth did it come to this?” – is hard to forget.

Starmer has reduced Johnson to bluster, bluff and at least one outright lie, but without appearing too partisan. He is measured, civil, polite. He cloaks his attacks in the rhetoric of constructive criticism. He knows there is little public appetite for point-scoring in the midst of this emergency. 

After last week’s PMQs, Michael Deacon, the parliamentary sketch writer for Johnson’s sycophantic mouthpiece, the Daily Telegraph, declared that Starmer had taken Johnson apart “like a Duplo train set” and reduced the Prime Minister to “a cascade of helpless waffle”. A Downing Street official confessed that Johnson was “rattled” by the encounter. Small wonder that Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, is eager for MPs to return to the chamber so that Tory backbenchers can distract attention from Johnson’s inadequacies with their braying.

To imagine how different things might have been had Starmer, not Jeremy Corbyn, been leading Labour since 2015 is enough to make a glass eye weep. With his forensic skills, Starmer could have torn apart the flimsy case for Brexit and laid bare the lies, false promises and contradictions of the Brexiteers. Instead he spent most of his time manoeuvring the Labour Party towards support for a second referendum in the face of Corbyn’s resistance. 

PMQs matters, even if it does not command huge television audiences. Good performances at the despatch box help leaders rally the troops. They galvanise their backbenchers and inspire party workers. Word filters down to the grass roots like moisture through parched soil.

But Starmer’s ascendancy also derives from his sure-footed performance outside the Commons chamber. He won his party’s leadership without exacerbating its deep divisions. He engineered the departure of the most incompetent and ideological Corbynistas from senior party posts without causing great ructions or backlash from Momentum. He has appointed good advisers and a capable shadow cabinet, although the exclusion of Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn was surprising.

He moved swiftly to defuse the long-running row over Labour’s alleged anti-Semitism, and has resisted the temptation to demand that the government seeks an extension to the Brexit transition period. For Remainers such as him to make that demand would be the best way of ensuring the government does no such thing. Far better that the pressure comes from beleaguered British businesses for whom the prospect of an immensely disruptive no-deal Brexit in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown is appalling.

The right-wing press savaged Corbyn, but has cut Starmer some slack – so far, at least. He secured the Telegraph’s front-page splash on the 75th anniversary of VE Day with his call for the government to protect the wartime generation from Covid-19 in care homes. He won a right of reply to Johnson’s televised national address last Sunday week. No 10 was forced to rebuke three Conservative MPs including Nadine Dorries, a health minister, for sharing a video that falsely claimed Starmer obstructed the prosecution of grooming gangs while director of public prosecutions. 

The worst the Mail on Sunday has discovered is that he owns a seven-acre field next to his parents’ Surrey home that could be worth £10m if it had planning permission (it doesn’t) and he wanted to sell it (he doesn’t). As a spokesman for Starmer explained: “Keir purchased the field for his late disabled mother. The field was used to house donkeys that Keir’s parents rescued and cared for. After his mother lost the ability to walk, the field allowed her to still watch the donkeys from her home.” 

Starmer’s stock is beginning to rise, albeit from a low base. According to YouGov he now has a net approval rating of 23 per cent – one point higher than Johnson, whose rating has fallen after an initial bounce. A third of respondents think Starmer looks like a prime minister-in-waiting – a label seldom applied to Corbyn or Ed Miliband. Respondents saying they would never vote Labour have fallen from 38 to 28 per cent.

Despite all that, those who abhor the damage that the ideological extremists and populists of the Conservative Party have inflicted on this country since 2016 should contain their excitement. Starmer has begun well, but sterner tests lie ahead.

He needs to find ways of restraining Momentum’s influence within the party, especially at constituency level. Most importantly, and urgently, he needs to produce a compelling vision of the more caring, equitable, green and prepared Britain that should emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. At a time of great flux, when a return to the failed status quo ante is unthinkable, Starmer should start making the political weather, not just responding to it. As one former Labour stalwart put it: “He’s very good at eating the food in front of him, but not so good at planting crops.”

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

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