The Tory Party has woken up to the fact that Boris Johnson is a political liability. With 148 MPs voting “no confidence” in the prime minister, his time in power is surely limited. Theresa May only survived for six months after 133 MPs voted against her in a similar ballot in 2019. But the Tories have yet to wake up to another uncomfortable fact: that Starmer is a much more formidable politician than they have given him credit for, a politician who has been carefully laying the foundations of a Labour revival since he was elected in a party landslide in 2020, and who is now about to reap the rewards of his careful work.
The Tories have always underestimated Starmer — dubbing him the “nasal knight” and dismissing him as a hopeless dullard. It is not difficult to see why. The former director of public prosecutions (hence his knighthood in 2014) is far from being a natural politician. He didn’t get into parliament until he was 52 and doesn’t seem capable of either lighting up the place with a brilliant phrase or winning sympathy with a well-timed joke. He also lacks the killer instinct that both Tony Blair and Johnson possess in abundance. The general impression of worthy dullness is reinforced by his shadow cabinet. Most are eminently forgettable and the two potential stars — David Lammy and Angela Rainer — might just as easily turn out to be public relations landmines.
The Tories take comfort from the narrowness of Labour’s lead in the polls. The people’s party is only eight points ahead of the Conservative Party (39% to 31%) in the latest YouGov poll despite the combination of midterm blues and Partygate. In the early 1980s, before the Falklands War, the Tories were much further behind Labour. Starmer is also only eight points ahead of Johnson (33% to 25%) on the question of who would make the best prime minister, despite the collapse of Johnson’s popularity.
But their complacency about Starmer could prove to be as misplaced as their earlier confidence in Johnson. There are three big reasons for thinking that the Labour leader is a much better politician than the Tories (and many people in the Labour Party) give him credit for.
The first is that he has got the big calls right, starting with his decision to focus on winning back the “red wall” (the working-class seats in the north that turned blue over Brexit) rather than on playing to the party’s loudest supporters, such as urban dwellers, ethnic minorities and university graduates.
This cost him a good deal of humiliation such as giving speeches in front of union flags and, more pointedly, reversing his position on Brexit (Starmer was the leader of the “remain” forces in a Labour Party then headed by the Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn.) It deprived him of a great deal of easy support that would have come with pandering to left-wing causes.
But we are already getting a glimpse of the rightness of this strategy: Labour is leading the Tories by 20 points in the forthcoming by-election in Wakefield, a red wall constituency that voted Tory in 2019 for the first time since the 1930s. Labour’s problem in the next election will not be motivating the base — hatred of the Tories will be enough to do that — but the danger that it will pile up votes in its new heartlands but fail to reach the swathe of working-class constituencies in the north that voted for Johnson in 2019.
The second threat the Tories overlook is that Starmer is capable of being ruthless when he needs to be. He ran for office as a conciliator who would continue to make room for the Corbyn left within the Labour Party. But since then he has sidelined the left far more ruthlessly than Neil Kinnock managed in the 1980s.
Corbyn hasn’t just been put out to pasture. He’s been expelled from the party in much the same way that Milton’s Satan was thrown out of Heaven — though he still haunts parliament as an unaffiliated MP. Starmer has retaken the party’s nooks and crannies from the Corbynistas and rewritten Labour’s constitution to make it harder for mavericks to win the leadership nomination. “We’ve nailed the hard left into their coffin,” one shadow cabinet member said at the last Labour Party conference in Brighton. “There’s a lot of kicking and screaming because they know they’re not coming back to life.” As future-proofing goes, this is pretty impressive.
The third is that the times are changing. There is a long tradition of such oscillations: John Major followed Margaret Thatcher, and Gordon Brown followed Blair just as, across the Atlantic, George H. W. Bush followed Ronald Reagan, and Harry Truman followed Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But the oscillation could be particularly marked this time around.
The price of Johnson’s particular type of charisma has proved to be unusually high: It goes along with both a cavalier indifference to truth (anybody who wants to read a chronicle of his lies could do no better than read Peter Oborne’s “The Assault on Truth”) and a spine-chilling willingness to treat other people as objects. So the temptation to turn to an opposition leader who embodies the opposite will be particularly high.
Starmer arguably has the right CV for the tougher times that lie ahead. He was brought up in difficult circumstances — his father was a factory worker; his mother contracted a rare disease that paralyzed and ultimately killed her; he was the only one of four siblings to pass the “11-plus” selective exams to attend university. He is a family man who likes playing five aside football and going to his local pub.
He has also fashioned a philosophy that may well prove to be just right for the times — to the left of New Labour with its focus on middle-class affluence but to the right of Corbyn’s Marxist fantasyland. Starmer’s tenets, which he is currently trying to flesh out in a book based on his 12,000 word Fabian Society pamphlet, is based on a combination of state activism and communitarianism. His main focus is on the just-about-managing class of Britons who are finding it difficult to make ends meet despite working hard and playing by the rules. He argues that the state shouldn’t only focus on the big macro issues but should also try to repair the fabric of communities. This actually sounds rather like the vision of post-Brexit Toryism that Johnson laid out in 2019 but, partly because of the prime minister’s personality and partly, to be fair, because of Covid, the Tories have singularly failed to deliver on their promise.
With Johnson mortally wounded the Tories might be well advised to preempt an election defeat by introducing a dullness revolution of their own. The Party elected Johnson over Jeremy Hunt in 2019 because they thought Hunt — who holds the record for longest-serving secretary of health, a brutally difficult job, at six years — was worthy without being exciting. But, now, we’ve had too much excitement and not enough worthiness.
The chances of the Tories pulling this off are nevertheless low given the delicacy of the operation that is required. The MPs don’t choose the party leader directly. They merely recommend a short-list of two to the party members who, as activists, are much further to the right than regular Tory voters. The members may well vote for Liz Truss, who is even more of a wild card than Johnson. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former right-hand man and now sworn enemy, said that Truss is “as close to properly crackers” as anybody he has met in Parliament; David Gauke, a former Tory MP, countered that this only shows how few MPs Cummings bothered to meet.
The 148 who voted “no confidence” on Monday evening not only guaranteed yet another period of confidence-destroying Conservative turmoil. They also brought Keir Starmer a lot closer to forming the next British government.
More From This Writer and Others at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Britain Is Taking School Snobbery to New Heights: Therese Raphael
Rishi Sunak Is Just the Tip of the Tories’ Leadership Crisis: Adrian Wooldridge
• Britain Begins to Think the Unthinkable: Life After the Queen: Martin Ivens
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at the Economist, he is author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”
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