If Conservative MPs have a specific anxiety about Boris Johnson’s government it is that the Prime Minister is a leader for good times: that he cannot deliver bad news or explain tough choices; that he is too addicted to delivering positive news and warm smiles. Robert Colvile, the director of the right-wing think tank the Centre for Policy Studies and one of the authors of the 2019 Conservative manifesto, recently described Johnson as having a “pasta-like tendency to buckle in hot water”. The Prime Minister’s defenestrated aide Dominic Cummings calls Johnson the “trolley” because of his tendency to swing wildly in one direction or another.
But if Labour MPs have a concern about Keir Starmer, it is that his preferred political register is all bad news, all the time: that he wouldn’t know a rousing political tune if it was blasted in his face (and, some grumble, that is exactly what Johnson will do at the next election).
As Westminster returns for the new parliamentary session, both leaders are secure in their roles: the government’s large majority means that its agenda will pass, while the balance of forces within Labour, and the party’s own rulebook, mean that Starmer will, barring an act of self-immolation, lead it into the next election. What is at stake is not the position of either leader, but how their parties feel about them.
Their allies dispute that neither party has much to complain about. There is a small band of MPs devoted to Johnson – John Whittingdale, Kwasi Kwarteng, Nadine Dorries, Liz Truss, Ben Wallace – who championed him (until he chose not to run) in the 2016 Tory leadership contest later won by Theresa May, and who were early backers in 2019 before a larger number of MPs rallied around him. They emphasise that although many in Westminster have written Johnson off, none have so far been proved right.
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One Conservative pointed out to me recently that, politically, Johnson is “a freak of nature”. When he emerged as a national figure in the 2000s – thanks to his show-stopping appearances on Have I Got News For You rather than because of his work as shadow minister for higher education – Tony Blair was still an electoral asset to Labour, David Cameron was an obscure parliamentarian, and Starmer and Rishi Sunak weren’t MPs. Yet Johnson has outlasted both former prime ministers, and might well outlast Starmer and Sunak.
Johnson has survived in part because most of his internal and external rivals have been willing to sacrifice their popularity for something they believe to be greater, whether that’s liberal interventionism in the case of Tony Blair, or the European project in the case of David Cameron. For Johnson’s critics within the party, his very survival proves their point.
Supporters of Starmer dispute the idea that their man is dull or uninspiring, and say that everywhere he goes he leaves a trail of people who are convinced he has the stuff of greatness about him. Starmer’s approval ratings, having sharply and painfully declined, are beginning to rise again: the minus eight he reached on 4 September, according to Opinium, compares well to the scores of minus four and five that Cameron was regularly achieving two years into his leadership of the Conservatives. But while the Cameron precedent is encouraging, it is some way short of the tide of optimism with which Blair entered office. Starmer’s partial recovery is the result of Tory mistakes rather than Labour success, and could easily collapse again.
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Both Johnson and Starmer enter the new parliamentary session with a point to prove. Johnson needs to demonstrate that he can make tough decisions, while Starmer must convince his party and the press that he can inspire voters and provide Labour with a sense of direction.
The new political season presents Johnson with plenty of opportunities to prove his critics wrong. In addition to the government’s proposal to increase National Insurance, Johnson has pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and Rishi Sunak has ambitious plans to pay off the UK’s coronavirus debts as soon as possible. As a result, Johnson’s government faces a series of fights, both within the Conservative Party and across Britain as a whole.
Raising National Insurance is popular in the country, with 55 per cent of people telling JL Partners they support a 1 per cent increase, but unpopular in the Conservative Party – many of whose MPs deplore tax rises in general, and manifesto-breaking ones in particular. Plans to bear down on the UK’s Covid-19 debts are divisive within the Tory party and face an uncertain reception outside of it. On climate, the Tories are quietly split between those who fear the costs of meeting the net-zero target and those who fear the costs of failing to do so.
In contrast, Starmer has just one major opportunity to give himself definition: his party conference speech in Brighton at the end of September. He needs to use it to provide a sense of what he and his party are for, and to imbue his criticisms of Johnson with a direction and a theme. But if he feels hard done by, and that he has fewer opportunities to prove himself than Johnson, he should also comfort himself with the thought that he also faces fewer moments of danger.
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire