Keir Starmer’s first 100 days: How can he make a mark in a crisis?

If the new Labour leader can gain the public’s attention for asking Boris Johnson the right questions, in a good national-interest tone, he will already be doing better than his predecessor

John Rentoul
Saturday 04 April 2020 15:16
Sir Keir Starmer in profile

The challenge for Keir Starmer’s first 100 days will be to introduce himself gradually to the British people. Taking over the most difficult job in politics, as it has been described by successive leaders of the opposition, in the middle of a crisis means that he won’t have many chances to gain people’s attention.

The state of public opinion is such that he has no choice but to support the government while constructively urging Boris Johnson to do specific things better. Even Jeremy Corbyn – if anyone remembers him – had to subdue his instinctive anti-Toryism in his last few weeks.

Starmer is likely to be better at it. To the extent that the general public is aware of him at all, it is as a conciliator in the maelstrom of Labour’s Brexit policy. He was the details person who did a serious job before politics, and who sought to negotiate a Brexit compromise with Theresa May’s government.

If Starmer is noticed for supporting Johnson, or Rishi Sunak, or Matt Hancock, when they are announcing measures of which the public approves, he will already be doing better than his predecessor. If he attracts attention for asking the right questions, in a good national-interest tone, so much the better. And forensic cross-examination is after all what Starmer is trained to do.

Inevitably, however, the new Labour leader is going to be introduced to the nation in what marketing people call a soft launch. Minimal advertising, no fanfare, low levels of initial public awareness. He will, no doubt, do many of the essential things. A big gesture of apology to and reconciliation with Jewish people. A clearout of senior Corbynite staff. A shadow cabinet that better represents the strengths of the parliamentary party. But he won’t get the “all channels” obsessive media reporting of these changes that would normally help build his image as a leader with the electorate.

On the other hand, taking over at a time like this makes it easier for Starmer to move on from the past. In normal times, he might have feared the shadow of Brexit coming back to haunt him.

There are only a few weeks until the end of June deadline for the UK to decide whether to ask for an extension to the transition period. If Starmer presses for an extension, he may alienate voters who blame Labour for trying to frustrate their decision in the referendum. But in the middle of a global crisis, who is going to notice? It may be a second-order dilemma for Johnson, but Labour’s position simply doesn’t matter.

In normal times, too, Starmer might have worried about a backlash from the party members who have just elected him, on the lookout for any heresy against the Corbynite orthodoxy. He wants to keep as many of the half-million members on board as possible.

But in a crisis, only a few of the most devout will be jealously guarding the sacred relics. Corbyn is already a politician of another era. He is from the period BC, Before Coronavirus.

He and a few of his supporters try to claim relevance by saying that the outbreak “has shown that when there is a crisis, money can be found”. This is quite wrong, because centre-right governments around the world agree that borrowing is the right response in a crisis.

It isn’t controversial, and Corbyn’s views don’t matter any more. What will matter over the next 100 days will be the specifics, of pressing ministers on whether they are responding to the scientific advice in the most effective ways, and of the design of economic help for people and businesses.

After that, Starmer will have to forge his reputation in the longer struggle to return to economic normality. Labour is likely to argue for more protection for the low paid and the unemployed, and for a gentler return to fiscal balance, just as Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling did in 2010. But Starmer will do this on his own terms, with his own shadow chancellor, and without the need to refer to the Corbyn period, which I think will fade quickly in the collective memory.

The huge scale of the post-corona recession will make it possible to forget most of the policies he has inherited from Corbyn without ever needing to reject them explicitly. New priorities will overwrite old ones.

So it may be that the Blairites and the Corbynites who are waiting to see which of them he will betray are asking the wrong question. Faced with calls from one side to “break with Corbynism in all its manifestations and fancies”, and warnings from the other to keep the “socialist policy consensus” inherited from his predecessor, it could be that Starmer in his first 100 days will be a Blairite, but only in the sense that he will probably take a middle course – the third way.

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