Why Keir Starmer faces a stark challenge to become prime minister

The Labour leader may prove too good to be deposed but perhaps not good enough to win power. 

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It is easy to forget how slow British politics can be. Keir Starmer has endured his first sustained wave of critical press coverage. But we are still likely years away from knowing whether he is good enough to return Labour to power.

In the UK, unlike in the US, parties elect official leaders when out of power, a system that creates an inevitable cycle of speculation, as it has for Starmer in recent weeks. For almost all opposition leaders, an initial flood of hope is soon followed by consternation that they have not created an adequate government-in-waiting. Such consternation is hard to avoid. It was acute under Ed Miliband even when Labour comfortably led the Conservatives in the polls in the early 2010s (albeit a lead that proved to have been a mirage).

For Starmer the flood of recent criticism, captured by Stephen Bush’s column a fortnight ago, can be spotted in the polls. The chart below – created by my colleague Ben Walker, who also runs Britain Elects – shows how Starmer and Johnson’s relative favourability has changed since the former’s election as Labour leader in April 2020.

How Boris Johnson has regained the lead over Keir Starmer
Leadership favourability ratings

Starmer became Labour leader just as Johnson’s popularity was being temporarily inflated by the Covid-19 crisis. National crises tend to lead to artificial surges in the popularities of leaders, and so it proved with Johnson, whose ratings later began a months-long slide.

The turning point for Johnson coincided with his failure to disown Dominic Cummings, his then chief adviser, after Cummings was widely seen to have broken the government’s lockdown rules last May. (I touch on the affair in my recent long read on the BBC.)

You cannot discuss Starmer without discussing Johnson. The absolute popularity of either man is secondary to their relative standing. And the problem for Starmer is that Johnson’s standing, both publicly and within his party, has revived since a late September nadir.

Starmer, meanwhile, has failed to build on his initial polling ascension: 40 per cent of Britons viewed him favourably within weeks of his election, up from the low 30s.

Most of the time little changes in the polls. But in recent weeks Starmer’s personal ratings have, for the first time since his strong start, slipped behind Johnson's. Although the absolute movement is minimal, with Starmer not having fallen far, he is now behind rather than marginally ahead. That is psychologically distressing to an opposition that has been exiled from power since 2010 and fears another decade in the wilderness. 

The problem for Starmer, as the Electoral Calculus website details, is that if he only does as well the polls currently suggest – with Labour around 38 per cent and the Tories around 40 per cent – Johnson’s Conservatives are assured of remaining in power, although they could lose their majority. (Under such a scenario the site forecasts 316 Tory seats, half a dozen short of a majority, with Labour winning 248.)

The Tories beat Labour by nearly 12 points in 2019. Starmer seems to have closed that gap to about 2 points. That is commendable and would allow Labour to gain nearly 50 seats at the next election. But Johnson would nevertheless prevail comfortably under this 40-38 scenario. And his win would be slightly better than Conservatives’ in 2010 – a victory that has ushered in an unbroken 11-year period of Tory government.

If this is Starmer’s ceiling, Johnson has little to fear – Labour has no record of getting rid of inadequate leaders. But as party strategists point out, Starmer is viewed as a plausible alternative prime minister, a bar few opposition leaders have cleared.

Starmer is likely to have years left in post, as a leader too good to be deposed but perhaps not good enough to win power. That would not be surprising. Very few Labour leaders ever have.

Harry Lambert is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He tweets at @harrytlambert.

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