Lord Barwell was MP for Croydon Central between 2010 and 2017, before serving as Chief of Staff to Theresa May. He now runs his own business.
I was interested to read the recent piece on this site by its Deputy Editor, Charlotte Gill, arguing that Keir Starmer’s chances at the next election are being overhyped.
Few would argue with her assessment that he is already proving more effective than Jeremy Corbyn at the Despatch Box. Everyone, Conservatives included, should welcome that. Governments benefit from effective scrutiny – good Ministers identify where they have the better arguments and where they don’t, and adjust Government policy accordingly.
But as William Hague demonstrated, being effective at the Despatch Box is no guarantee of electoral success. And Charlotte went on to argue that Keir Starmer was being “overhyped by a media that repeatedly gets election results wrong” and “has massive problems with widespread appeal”.
I am not so confident.
First, we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of Labour no longer being led by Jeremy Corbyn. Boris Johnson’s triumph last December was based on building a coalition between people who liked his Brexit deal and people who were not so keen on it – in some cases, actively hostile to it – but who judged that having Corbyn as Prime Minister would be even worse. With Corbyn gone, that coalition could easily fracture.
And Corbyn’s departure also increases the risk of Labour and the Liberal Democrats co-operating to encourage tactical voting. Johnson got 43.6 per cent of the vote in December. That’s just 1.2 percentage points more than Theresa May got in 2017. The reason he got a big Parliamentary majority, whereas she lost hers, is that in 2019 the anti-Conservative vote was more divided. There is a significant risk that in individual constituencies that won’t be the case next time.
Second, we also shouldn’t underestimate the importance of Brexit being done. Maybe those Leave voters who switched to the Conservatives last year will stick with us, but it’s not a given – that’s why Number 10 wanted the election before Brexit was done. And if they don’t, getting back the historically Conservative Remain voters we lost won’t be easy.
Third, for both of the above reasons I think Charlotte is wrong to assume that winning back the Red Wall seats is Labour’s only route to power. Of course, they will be hoping to pick up some of them, but there are seats in London and the South where, without the risk of a Corbyn as Prime Minister, Labour will fancy their chances (and others where the Liberal Democrats will fancy theirs).
Fourth, Keir Starmer’s election has dragged Labour further back towards the centre ground than appeared likely during the leadership election. During the campaign, he didn’t depart far from Labour’s 2019 manifesto, but the reshuffle he conducted on winning – jettisoning a number of leading Corbynites and bringing back Blairites – signalled a much bigger shift.
Fifth, Charlotte rightly argues that Labour is out of touch with the voters it lost on Brexit and identity politics more generally. But here, too, Keir Starmer has been deft. Take his line on Brexit: he has not joined the chorus of Remainers asking for the transition period to be extended. His line has been: “You said you had an oven-ready deal, so let’s see you finalise it quickly and end the uncertainty”. Or consider this week’s pulling down of a statue of the slave trader, Edward Colston, in Bristol, where – to the frustration of many of Labour MPs and activists – he argued that while the statue should have been removed from our streets a long time ago, it shouldn’t have been taken down in the way it was.
Sixth, Covid-19 has transformed both the focus of this Parliament and the Government’s political position. We are only a few months into this crisis. If the Chief Medical Officer is right, it is going to be at least a year before life is back to anything approaching normal, and we will emerge with a weaker economy, hundreds of thousands more people out of work and a structural deficit that will have to be dealt with either via spending cuts, tax rises or a combination of the two. And recent polling shows that public support for the government’s handling of the pandemic has collapsed (British people now have the most negative view of their government’s handling of any country YouGov polled). And, while we still have a voting intention lead over Labour, that has narrowed significantly.
Seventh, we shouldn’t underestimate the pendulum effect. Elections essentially boil down to a choice between ‘more of the same’ and ‘time for a change’. The longer you are in government, the more powerful the siren voice of ‘Time for a change’ becomes. Assuming that the next election isn’t until the end of this Parliament, we will have had Conservative-led governments for 14 years. It would be a triumph unprecedented in modern political history to secure another five years.
Eighth, Charlotte argues “Starmer may simply have a personality issue in an age where people want clearer messaging from MPs”. Possibly, but during my lifetime the electorate have oscillated between charismatic leaders and leaders who are more comfortable with the detail of policy than in the TV studios. It may be that in the aftermath of the pandemic, people are looking for someone whose appeal is based on a forensic grip of detail, not a clear message.
Finally, there is one massive problem that Starmer faces which Charlotte didn’t mention: it will be incredibly difficult for Labour to win an outright majority at a general election for as long as the SNP holds nearly all of the seats in Scotland – and, as things stand, that doesn’t look like changing (although forecasting British politics in recent years has been a fools errand).
But to become Prime Minister, he doesn’t need to win an overall majority; he simply needs to deprive Boris Johnson of one. The Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid, the Greens and the SDLP would all prefer him as Prime Minister to Johnson. So, too, might the DUP, given that he gave in to the EU’s demand for a separate arrangement for Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement.
Four and a half years is a long time in British politics, but Starmer has a better chance of becoming Prime Minister after the next election than some are assuming. We should take him seriously.