Keir Starmer has an ace up his sleeve – and he’s ready to play it

The straight guy in the grey suit who promised to do the right thing will be a wonderful contrast to the shambles in No 10

Ed Dorrell
Thursday 16 June 2022 13:24
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Starmer vows to resign if fined over potential Covid breach

The last few days have seen a sudden acceleration in the number of articles questioning Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Many of these pieces have suggested the opposition leader is failing to cut through with the electorate, pointing to survey results and arguing that support for both him and his party is not as high as it ought to be given the many woes of the Boris Johnson administration.

Commentators suggest that the public can’t, or won’t, warm to him; that an ex-QC in a suit just isn’t the politician for these troubling times. His apparent lack of charisma, we’ve been told, is not what voters think they need right now.

I have not gone that far, but in at least one piece for The Independent I have added my voice to the chorus. Despite their rage at Boris Johnson, people still struggle to become enthusiastic about the Labour leader. They don’t know what to make of him.

However, unlike other political observers, I am less pessimistic about his fortunes. I think the voting public can warm to Starmer as they become more regularly exposed to him in the run-up to an election. While they might never chant his name to the tune of “Seven Nation Army”, there is a strong argument that voters might buy an Attlee figure in a time of chaos.

But I also think there’s another reason to be upbeat: namely, Starmer’s brave commitment to resign if he is sanctioned for “Beergate”. A recent focus-group exercise in Wakefield, where there will be a by-election next week, suggests this pledge might be Labour’s ace in the pack.

Although the actual promise is not yet well known, when voters are made aware of it, they are blown away.

One voter said after watching a video of Starmer’s statement: “I found that genuine and heartfelt, to be honest. Boris, to the best of my knowledge, has never offered to stand down or anything like that. He’s always above everything else. And I think, possibly, I’ve just seen [Starmer] in a different light now, because I’ve not seen that before – and that is somebody who mirrors what we’ve been through.”

Others were equally impressed. It’s worth bearing in mind that the people speaking were archetypal red wallers: like millions of others, they had voted for Boris Johnson in 2019.

The key part of this insight is that these voters were not yet aware that the leader of the opposition had made this pledge. Assuming – and we all know what assumption is the mother of – but assuming that Starmer is cleared by the police, you can expect that ignorance to change.

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The division between how Labour’s leadership has behaved when accused of bending lockdown rules and how the prime minister and his Downing Street colleagues responded will be the attack line that keeps on giving.

Voters are still very cross about how prime ministerial parties were organised while the rest of us were locked down, respecting the rules, choosing not to go to family funerals, being refused access to relatives dying in hospital.

I wouldn’t expect that rage to die down any time soon – especially if Starmer and the opposition front bench are able to contrast their “honourable” bahaviour with that of their political opponents. They will repeat it and repeat it and repeat it until there is pretty much no one left in Britain who doesn’t know about it. And I think such a strategy can probably work. The straight guy in the grey suit who promised to do the right thing will be a wonderful contrast to the shambles in No 10.

Starmer just needs to get the all-clear from Durham’s finest… fingers crossed.

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