Keir Starmer likes things to be neat. His hair, how he speaks, how he manages his party: a definite Starmer style has emerged since he became Labour leader just under 100 days ago. He doesn’t waste words, briskly summing up the government’s handling of Covid-19 as “flailing around”. He quickly sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey when the row about her and Israel threatened to get messy.
Starmer faces a government that – partly by design – is Britain’s most disorderly for decades. Boris Johnson rarely utters a clear sentence. Dominic Cummings regards disruptive as a compliment. U-turns, broken promises and bloody Whitehall restructurings occur almost weekly.
The contest between these two ways of doing politics – between Starmer’s methodical social democracy and Johnson’s rightwing shaggy dog story – will probably decide whether Conservatism’s long hold over Britain continues. Recently, the contest has increasingly gone Starmer’s way. “The opposition leader has made an impressive start,” conceded the Times last month, echoing other usually pro-Tory papers. Labour has almost caught the Tories in the polls, and in some Starmer is ahead as the preferred prime minister – the first time a Labour opposition leader has been since Tony Blair, a quarter of a century ago.
Watching Starmer regularly dominate Johnson at prime minister’s questions, exposing him on questions of competence and fact, it’s possible to believe that the ascendancy of glib populism in Britain since the Brexit referendum is coming to an end. Starmer is measured, well-briefed, sounds rational, and hardly ever says anything obviously ideological, let alone radical. He may be becoming the sort of Labour leader centrists have longed for.
Yet the opposition leader’s segment of PMQ’s lasts less than 20 minutes a week. And the rest of the time, Starmer has been a low-key presence, so far: sparing with his public statements, announcing few new policies, and rarely even calling for the resignations of blatantly rule-breaking government figures, such as the adviser Dominic Cummings and the housing minister, Robert Jenrick. Blair’s early days as leader were much more active and high profile.
In some ways, Starmer’s more minimal approach is understandable. The vast, present-day crisis of the pandemic makes it hard for any opposition plans for government to feel important. And so does the current state of the electoral cycle, as Starmer pointed out on the London radio station LBC this week, when he was asked whether he supported a rare new Labour policy proposal, a wealth tax. “Four years before an election, I’m not going to start setting out a tax regime,” he said, a little testily. Methodical people don’t like to be rushed.
Just as revealingly, he went on to criticise the 2019 Labour manifesto, for having “far too much in it”. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the party offered an alternative vision of almost every aspect of British life, and only 32% of voters liked it. The argument that this ambitiousness lost Labour the election deserves more scrutiny than it has received, since many more voters opted for the Conservatives’ even riskier and less costed plan for a post-Brexit “global Britain”. But Starmer is right to assume that Labour manifestos are held to higher standards.
For all his fluency in parliament, underneath he may lack political confidence. He’s only been an MP for five years. He was a barrister for more than four times as long, and occasionally he treats the Commons too much like a courtroom – like somewhere with rules about what can be discussed, and enough time to do it thoroughly. As he tries to cross-examine Johnson, the prime minister shamelessly changes the subject – one of his few real political skills – or simply runs down the clock. There is one more PMQs before parliament adjourns for the rest of the summer. Starmer needs to make it count.
And if he does carry on badly damaging Johnson, it’s possible that by the election Starmer will be dealing with a different kind of Tory leader. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is increasingly being talked about by Tories as Johnson’s successor. Like Starmer, Sunak is articulate, calm and good on detail – even when presenting policies as flawed as this week’s economic bailout.
If Starmer does end up facing Sunak – or if Johnson’s premiership somehow sobers up – then seeming like a grownup will no longer be enough for the Labour leader. He’ll need to sell voters a picture of a different Britain.
Despite Labour’s defeat last year, the hunger for one is still there. Last month, a report by the political scientists Philip Cowley, Tim Bale and Alan Wage found that most voters were well to the left of the Tories – even pragmatic ones like Sunak – in their economic values. Will Starmer read the report? Let’s at least hope someone puts a copy on his spotless desk.
• Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist