Sir Keir Starmer truly appeared to relish his condemnation of Boris Johnson at yesterday’s Prime Ministers Questions, leaning in towards his opponent and delivering his call for resignation with the venom of someone who has been encircling his prey for most of the previous month. Starmer’s key strength of appearing somewhat Prime Ministerial has served him very well, contrasting himself with Johnson’s brazen lies and inane babbling. The Labour leader has been left to benefit from parroting such universally acknowledged truths as the Prime Minister should not lie to the public or break his own covid rules. But Labour cannot rely on this strategy as Conservative MPs begin to turn on Johnson.
Doing so has catapulted Labour into a substantial poll lead for the first time in Starmer’s reign. With yesterday’s PMQs demonstrating the gulf in fortunes of the parties as Johnson squirmed under the opposition’s scrutiny, the latest YouGov polling has Labour 10 points above the Conservatives.
In reality, this lead owes more to the fact that Johnson has had the worst month of his career than anything else. Beginning with the leaked footage of his former press spokeswoman, Allegra Stratton,jokingly evading a question about a Christmas party which took place at number 10 Downing Street on 18 December 2020, the government has been subjected to a seemingly endless stream of leaks which show just how flagrantly they disregarded lockdown rules over the past two years.
At first, Johnson’s solution was characteristically simple: deny everything. Stratton was left to resign from her role as government spokesperson for the Cop26 climate summit, as he continued to claim that the guidelines were observed. This approach, though, would not suffice for the continuing barrage of evidence being released to the press which demonstrated the government’s sheer apathy towards their own rules.
When a picture of Johnson failing to adhere to social distancing rules in May 2020 surfaced, he claimed that he and all those present, including his wife and infant child, were working. Similarly Trumpian lies came from the Prime Minister when, responding to a picture showing him hosting a Christmas quiz at Downing Street the previous Christmas, he claimed that he “broke no rules”, despite the photograph showing him failing to comply with the rule of no household mixing indoors.
Upon the revelation of the most damning evidence to be released thus far, an email sent to over 100 Downing Street employees inviting them to a garden party in May 2020 which Johnson is reported to have attended, the former Etonian was forced to adjust his response, admitting his attendance while claiming he believed it to be a work-related gathering.
As this litany of disasters has continued to grind the Prime Minister down to the point where even his characteristic bluster and blatant dishonesty are insufficient defence, the job of the leader of the opposition has been decidedly easy. As Johnson argued time and again that black is white, Keir Starmer was left to profit from appearing as a, functioning adult.
As simple as this task may appear, it is one which Starmer and his party had failed to carry out effectively in response to any one of the numerous scandals and catastrophes which have dominated the first two years of this government’s reign. Until these most recent revelations, the Conservatives had consistently polled more favourably than Labour, gaining Hartlepool from them in the by-election in May and routing them in the local elections which took place on the same day.
All of which occurred despite a remarkably lacklustre response to each wave of the pandemic, endless allegations of corruption, Gavin Williamson’s exam disaster and the Dominic Cummings scandal of 2020 to name but a few examples of this government’s incompetence. Indeed, when the free school meals fiasco occurred, it was not Starmer, but footballer Marcus Rashford who led the line of attack against number 10’s seemingly indefensible position.
Whether due to the nature or volume of the government’s constant failings,Labour has, almost by default, finally established themselves as the most popular party in the country.
Their recent rise to the top of the pollsis bittersweet. A likely concern for them is that Johnson’s days are surely numbered. Numerous Tory MPs have condemned the Prime Minister’s lack of regard for covid restrictions, with Douglas Ross, the leader of the party in Scotland, suggesting that Johnson may have to resign. With the mood within the Tory party changing rapidly, a number of potential successors to Johnson, such as Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, have been distinctly absent from public attempts to defend him. Either one of these frontrunners to become the next Prime Minister represents a far more competent opponent for Starmer, upon whom his condemnations will become redundant.
Now is the time, if there has ever been one, for the Labour leader to establish a coherent plan of what Labour stands for under his leadership. This is a task he has struggled to carry out previously, resorting instead to vague rhetoric such as that of his recent ‘contract with the British people’ and the obvious symbolism of appearing publicly next to a Union Jack as often as possible.
Though this strategy, or lack thereof, is not a failing, it is his only viable option. Having firmly established himself as a member of the party’s right by fanning the flames of Labour’s eternal civil war, he remains unable, or unwilling, to commit to any form of progressive change without risking the support of big business that he craves.
Likewise, he cannot openly proclaim a centrist, neoliberal vision for Britain’s future without alienating much of his voter base. His solution, to regularly espouse essentially meaningless platitudes as the Tories implode has served him well recently but will, in all probability, fal
ter with a change of Prime Minister.
As sharks circle Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer’s job is set to become far more challenging.
Words by Cian Carrick
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