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Opinion

Is he up to it?

30 May 2024 5 minute read
Sir Keir Starmer – Image Gareth Fuller

Ben Wildsmith

When Rishi Sunak took office as Prime Minister, there were a couple of hours after his opening speech, in which he promised to restore accountability to politics, when it seemed possible that we had seen the end of the Johnson/Truss circus of absurdity.

Then he reappointed Suella Braverman at the Home Office and that hope was over. Dysfunctional organisations produce disordered outcomes, and the Conservative Party is, at best, nearing the end of a cycle of existence if not permanent extinction.

So, in retrospect, it’s simple to draw a line from Sunak’s ill-conceived ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ catastrophe to the continuing performance of the government under his leadership.

For a moment, though, something about his affect and presentation suggested to many that he represented a return to the ‘grown-up’ politics we had lacked since the beginning of the Brexit campaign.

Managerial

He seemed managerial and self-effacing when viewed in relief to the egotistical bombast of Johnson and ideological recklessness of Truss. His policies may have been anathema to those of us on the left, or extreme right, but nothing about him during his leadership campaign suggested that he was an agent of chaos.

I wonder if the nation is experiencing the same blind spot when it comes to Sir Keir Starmer.

Objections to Starmer have tended to be ideological. The right distrusts his commitment to upholding Brexit, whilst the left decry a perceived unwillingness to redress inequality alongside a foreign policy that appears to shadow the government.

Neither of these groups have mounted a case that Starmer’s government might prove to be incompetent.

If anything, his detractors are worried that it will be too effective in implementing a programme they dislike.

Both sides warn of an immovable centrist force in government; a bland machine imposing its will so insidiously that by the time voters wake up to the changes it has made, they will be irrevocable.

Starmer’s record as a politician, however, suggests otherwise. As shadow Brexit Secretary, he wielded a lot of power in the Labour Party. Such support as it retained during the Corbyn years was heavily reliant on opposing the various government Brexit strategies.

There was a point during Theresa May’s premiership when party politics became almost irrelevant. Both parties were split and if either had advanced a coherent plan to get us through the post-referendum confusion, it would have been placed to shape the next decade.

Second referendum

In pushing for a second referendum, Starmer lost the opportunity to secure a soft Brexit that would have respected the vote whilst preventing its most pernicious effects.

Swathes of traditional Labour voters were lost in the process. Jeremy Corbyn’s shortcomings as a leader are never far from the lips of UK politicians and commentators. Starmer’s misreading of the nation at this crucial time seems not to have made it into the accepted narrative.

More recently, Starmer allowed himself to be boxed into endorsing Israel’s threat to cut off water and power in Gaza.

This happened during an interview with Nick Ferrari, LBC’s veteran presenter, and it illuminates some dynamics in Labour’s current performance.

Ferrari is a grizzled and wily operator on the right of British politics, and he clearly smelt weakness during this encounter.

Under pressure, Starmer appeared to explicitly endorse war crimes and has had to spend the last six months finessing himself out of that corner.

I’m more forgiving than some on this particular incident. I don’t believe that Starmer is ideologically rabid enough to believe in the outcome he appeared to suggest.

One of his trumpeted attributes is that he is not a career politician; he’s a lawyer who has come into politics because of a sense of duty. He is, though, about to plunge into a world where Nick Ferrari is the least of his problems.

Everybody from Putin and Xi Xinping to unfriendly figures in the Civil Service will be lined up against him and they know he can be wrongfooted.

Ideological ballast

Centrist politicians lack the comfortable certainty of those with ideological ballast. Margaret Thatcher’s appeal lay in the simplicity of her arguments, much the same could be said for Tony Benn.

It is far trickier to sell the centre position, laden as it is with compromise, contradiction, and nuance. To pull it off requires the political instincts and single-mindedness of a Tony Blair or Bill Clinton.

Many close to Blair were surprised at his refusal to expel Jeremy Corbyn when the electric gardener was openly calling for a leadership election.

Blair’s position was that his strength derived from the structural integrity of the Labour Party as a recognisably progressive force and that to offload Corbyn would threaten that.

This week’s floundering over Diane Abbott suggests that Starmer, with Peter Mandelson in his ear, has mistaken political expedience for strategy.

The appeal of not being the Tories will evaporate upon contact with power, and the ex-Tory voters to whom Abbott has seemingly been sacrificed will be the first to reject Starmer when immediate solutions to endemic problems are not forthcoming. To whom will he turn then?


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Steve George
Steve George
4 days ago

He’s never had charisma. But, bland is one thing, vacuous is another. That’s the way he’s beginning to look. The Tories’ ‘new’ policies may be barking but at least they’re coming up with identifiable policies that everyone is talking about.

What exactly are Labour’s policies, that might actually make people want to vote *for* them rather than just *against* the tories? Starmer is running a campaign in his own image. Bland, uninspiring and relying on people voting for what he’s not, rather than what he is.

Annibendod
Annibendod
4 days ago

An excellent insight as always. As I’ve said many times, Starmer’s New Conservative Labour offers no departure from the dysfunctional Political, Economic or Constitutional models that bedevill the UK and cause catastrophe for Wales. Therein lies his and Labour’s incompetence. Plaid Cymru by way of contrast has consistently sought to build Wales’ institutions and capacity to govern itself. It has consistently looked to work with Government to see its progressive policies realised. Now I don’t contend that the party is perfect for one second. What I am calling for is Wales’ progressive Statists/constitutional and social progressives to join with us,… Read more »

Dafydd
Dafydd
3 days ago
Reply to  Annibendod

I wish that this was true, unfortunately it is pure conjecture. Plaid have consistently backed Labour in it’s quest to cripple Wales and acts like a compliant poodle. Plaid has lost it’s reason for existing. At no time is it concerned with the fiscal management of Wales, only on how much money it can help the Labour party squander, and how to inconvenience the driving and working population. The changes to the structure of the Senedd shows that they are only interested in lining their own pockets without a concern about solving the problems of Wales. If Labour win this… Read more »

Riki
Riki
4 days ago

Imaging being from Wales and calling an Englishman your Prime minister!

Mawkernewek
3 days ago
Reply to  Riki

I’ve never understood how it is that the London lawyer Starmer has ‘put my changed Labour Party back in touch with the priorities of working people’

j91968
j91968
2 days ago
Reply to  Mawkernewek

He didn’t even start studying law until he was eighteen – don’t family background and the person’s formative years count when it comes to class?

Gerry Scanlon
Gerry Scanlon
1 day ago
Reply to  j91968

Honestly, who cares about class? The idea of the ‘horny-handed sons of toil’ or ‘salt of the earth’ is at least 50 years out of date, and is appealing only to the tribalists who believe people can be neatly binary in their politics. What’s needed is a nuanced understanding of just who ‘working people’ are, what their aspirations are, what their fears are, where they see their country in 5 years time. Starmer will be PM (although I think it will be a lot tighter than the polls are showing), but as others have said, there’s no indication of what… Read more »

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
3 days ago

Good article.
Starmer clearly has no charisma or charm. Neither does he have a political philosophy that is in any way socialist (as he claims). Such a shame. The working class clearly now have no voice in Westminster, its just blue or red hard right tories. Both of the two main parties are singing to the same hymn sheet of monetarism

Mark
Mark
1 day ago
Reply to  Linda Jones

Neither party is ‘hard-right’. The Tories have raised taxes to the highest in living memory, raised welfare spending to record levels, NHS budgets and headcount are the highest they have ever been, and they are allowing immigration on an unprecedented scale. Meanwhile Labour are promising more of the same. How exactly is this ‘hard-right’?

Steve A Duggan
Steve A Duggan
3 days ago

We are stuck with these two parties due to our archaic voting system. Boring Labour and lying Tories what a choice! Vote Plaid in Wales.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
3 days ago

Clark of Kent’s moment in the phone box approaches, who will emerge, Jeff Goldblum or Keir Hardie…

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
3 days ago

This isn’t one of your better articles Ben!

You seem to have brushed aside or completely ignored a range of issues that, IMHO, could be described as attempting to re-write history.

j91968
j91968
3 days ago
Reply to  Richard Davies

I agree. Highly selective. It’d make a change if Starmer weren’t almost always the villain of the piece in Ben’s op-eds, especially with so many other party leaders to chose from who could also stand some closer scrutiny.

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
2 days ago
Reply to  j91968

Your agreement is misplaced!

I don’t support mr keir starmer and in this article Ben has been far too lenient towards him.

j91968
j91968
2 days ago
Reply to  Richard Davies

I’d just occasionally like to see someone other than the Labour leaders both sides of Offa’s Dyke being shredded on here. I am all for equal opportunity character assassinations, especially with the prospect of the Reform Party gaining a good footing in Wales. UKIP proved rather popular here after all, or has that been conveniently forgotten?

Ben Wildsmith
Ben Wildsmith
2 days ago
Reply to  j91968

I’ve written far more often about Conservative politicians than I have either Starmer or Gething. Labour is receiving more attention now because it is further up the news agenda.

j91968
j91968
2 days ago
Reply to  Ben Wildsmith

When are you going to write a glowing portrait of the paragons of virtue you deem fit to be First Minister or Prime Minister? If you look for faults you’ll always be sure to find them, but it’s depressingly negative to read your witherimg scorn week-in, week-out.

Why follow the media herd? Why can’t you strike out and make the case FOR a political leader you admire It’s allowed, isn’t it? Your editor won’t spike a positive profile will (s)he?

Ben Wildsmith
Ben Wildsmith
2 days ago
Reply to  j91968

I’d just occasionally like to see someone other than the Labour leaders both sides of Offa’s Dyke being shredded on here. I am all for equal opportunity character assassinations…’

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
2 days ago

He has Mandy whispering in his ear, he likes all kinds of people…

Just not the ones one would like to spend any time in a lifeboat with…

The nearer the day comes, what steps out of that phone box should concern us all…

One more liar and deceiver in prospect, honest leaders of the left are a thing of the past…

Corbyn saw to that…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
2 days ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

‘Paragons of Virtue’ not much meat for a sketch writer there…

They all left when Fat Shanks moved his mad-hatters booze-up into Westminster and unleashed his feral thieving henchmen and women on the country like locust with personality disorders….

Tory Women; full on heartless, sadistic, bigoted, barking mad, thick as mince and on the make…

Last edited 2 days ago by Mab Meirion
j91968
j91968
1 day ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

I feel sure you couldn’t have missed the heavy irony surrounding my use of “paragons of virtue”.

Rhddwen y Sais
Rhddwen y Sais
2 days ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

Indeed he gave us Boris in buckets and pulled down the red wall never to be rebuilt.

jimmy
jimmy
2 days ago

….”To whom will he turn then?”

The Liz Truss affair exposed clearly the power of the financial markets / The City, to set the course of politics in the UK. As long as Starmer is no “turbulent priest” but continues to reassure the real power brokers, he will ride out the storm I suspect.

John Ellis
John Ellis
1 day ago

Until the last few days Starmer has managed rather successfully to tread cautiously and skilfully in carrying his metaphorical precious policy ‘Ming vase’ across the slithery ice rink of the UK’s political scene. Until his handling of the Diane Abbott challenge, in the face of which he’s taken his first significant political stumble. Has this at least cracked the ‘Ming vase’? Perhaps too early to tell, as yet. But while allowing for the fact that England takes relatively little interest in what domestic politics in Wales throws up, Sir Keir might be well advised to maintain a cautious and discreet… Read more »

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