Keir Starmer may be on to something when he says Boris Johnson’s jokes are ‘going to wear thin’

The prime minister turned the Conservative conference into a four-day extended play version of his own stand-up comedy routine. But what if the voters don’t think it’s funny?

John Rentoul
Saturday 09 October 2021 14:20
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<p>Voters preferred Starmer’s conference speech to Johnson’s </p>

Voters preferred Starmer’s conference speech to Johnson’s

There goes Keir Starmer, copying Tony Blair again. “The jokes are all very well but they’re going to wear thin when people are hit in their wallet,” Starmer told Robert Peston after Boris Johnson turned the Conservative Party conference into a four-day extended play version of his own stand-up comedy routine.

Other cabinet ministers were relegated to delivering speeches in a pen in a corner of the exhibition hall, screened off so that the chatter of the cafe area could be heard but not seen, while the prime minister gave media interviews that took all the headlines.

The Boris Johnson Festival culminated in the big speech in the big hall from the Sun King himself. It was a comic feat of strength, delivered at speed, starting with a line about sending Jeremy Corbyn, the “corduroyed communist cosmonaut”, into orbit at the last election.

Apart from a line about “the present stresses and strains”, which “are mainly a function of growth and economic revival”, the speech seemed far removed from the realities outside the security cordon, of shortages, rising costs, a cut in universal credit and impending tax increases. But it was interesting how Starmer chose to respond to it, echoing Blair, who said in his memoir that he gave careful thought to how to attack each of his Conservative opponents, defining William Hague as “better at jokes than judgement”.

Blair explained that he kept his attacks low key, because they were more likely to stick than “calling your opponent a liar, or a fraud, or a villain or a hypocrite” and “the middle-ground floating voter kind of shrugs their shoulders at those claims”.

So is Starmer’s attack going to stick? Are Johnson’s jokes going to wear thin? There is some evidence that they will. Obviously, the speech went down well in the hall in Manchester with Conservative representatives. Many of them had their doubts about Johnson, but they turned to him in desperation after Theresa May’s failure to break the Brexit deadlock, which seemed to threaten the party with extinction. He delivered for them, both an election victory and Brexit, and they are surprised and grateful. That he is still ahead in the opinion polls is a bonus.

Johnson’s speech also went down well with journalists. Even if we could see that the argument that Brexit is good because it allows us to start a wage-price inflationary spiral all of our own was nonsense, it is more fun to sit through 45 minutes of jokes than 90 minutes of earnest platitudes punctuated by heckles and standing ovations.

But that bias gets the prime minister only so far. The most important thing that happened this week was the Opinium poll carried out after the prime minister’s comedy turn. It found that a representative sample of voters preferred Starmer’s speech: 63 per cent said they agreed with the Labour leader while only 51 per cent said they agreed with Johnson. Starmer scored better on coming across as “strong”, “competent” and “in touch”. By the narrowest of margins, 41-40 per cent, more people even thought Starmer’s speech was “interesting”.

We should be clear that this was not a conventional poll. Online respondents were shown video extracts from the two speeches and then asked questions. Normally, few respondents would have even seen clips on the news, so this is an artificial exercise in which people are asked to pay more attention to politics than they usually would. That is why Opinium’s findings aren’t reflected in other polls carried out among people paying a normal level of attention to politics – which is low, even during party conferences.

But the reason the Opinium poll is important is that it is like creating an election campaign in a laboratory. The one time when many voters pay any attention to politics at all is at an election. Then they will stop and listen to what politicians are saying. So it is significant that, when that happens, the prime minister’s jokes are already wearing thin – or were never that thick in the first place.

We have seen this kind of gap between mediated and direct perceptions of politicians before. In the 2017 election, most journalists thought Jeremy Corbyn was a bad-tempered throwback who was incapable of running a bath, let alone a country, but when voters paid attention to him during the campaign, they were surprised to discover that he seemed an amiable, decent bloke who had reasonable solutions to the country’s problems.

Starmer is unlikely to benefit from such an effect on that scale at the next election. There were other things going on in 2017, such as Theresa May’s disastrous campaign and the Brexit issue working in Labour’s favour. But it is interesting, to say the least, that Johnson is not the diviner of the people’s hearts that some Tories (and indeed some Labour people) imagine him to be.

It is notable, too, that Starmer has adopted a ruthlessly cynical posture on benefit cuts, inflation and tax rises. Again, journalists seem to see this differently from the typical voter. Despite journalists pointing out that Labour’s alternative policies don’t exist, Starmer has cut through by blaming the government. Opinion polls now show that more people expect taxes to rise if there is a Tory government than a Labour one after the next election. Perhaps the prime minister’s jokes are indeed wearing thin.

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