It is hard to read the mood of a party at a virtual conference. The camera cannot transmit the pitch of chatter in the bars, the balance of swagger and despond. The body language at the annual jamborees is normally a useful measure of each tribe’s confidence, but this year the signal is blocked.
It is Labour’s turn this week and opinion polls give grounds for cautious optimism. Keir Starmer is judged more capable as a prime minister than the actual prime minister. The ratings for their respective parties are broadly level-pegging, though incumbent governments have suffered worse and bounced back to victory.
Normally, by this stage in the political cycle, the mood would also be conditioned by a round of local council ballots, maybe a byelection, but that is all on hold for the pandemic. Without that stimulus the activist base becomes listless. Leaders struggle to know what really works on the ground, as distinct from what goes down well in a focus group.
The absence of formal campaigns does not mean campaigning has stopped. Aggression is the house style for a Downing Street operation staffed with mercenaries from the Vote Leave referendum-winning battalion. Dominic Cummings is often portrayed as a ferocious ideologue, but former colleagues say that ideas are subordinate to the love of combat.
The overarching motive is a relentless need to win at everything. It is the trait that recommended him to Boris Johnson. The Tory leader has fewer fixed beliefs than his chief strategist, and is better at camouflaging unsightly ambition in geniality, but they are alike in holding grudges with vindictive tenacity. They both measure success by the body count of crushed enemies.
That is a bad metric for government, especially in a pandemic. Controlling the spread of a virus, managing public understanding of what is permitted and why, requires a set of careful managerial skills that are not just alien to those in No 10 but are despised as the stuff of establishment technocracy.
Johnson is growing noticeably frustrated that Covid cannot simply be “beaten”. There is no confetti-showered, trophy-lifting moment in prospect – and without one, the prime minister struggles to focus his competitive impulse.
This explains, I suspect, the sullen temper that Tory MPs say has descended on their leader. He knows he is not winning and none of his usual moves are working. He blew hard on the embers of the old Brexit fire with the internal market bill, but it didn’t catch as intended. The proposed breach of international law was too incendiary even for some Brexiteers. Starmer is refusing to play the unrepentant Europhiliac.
The Labour leader strolled around that obvious trap today in his keynote conference speech. He treated Britain’s departure from the EU as a settled matter, leaving Johnson’s competence in delivery as the only unresolved issue – can he do the deal he said was already done?
The contrast Downing Street wants to draw is between “Boris” the great Brexit liberator and “Sir Keir”, the slick remainiac lawyer. Starmer’s preferred distinction is between seriousness and irresponsibility. “While Boris Johnson was writing flippant columns about bendy bananas, I was defending victims and prosecuting terrorists,” Starmer said. “While he was being sacked by a newspaper for making up quotes, I was fighting for justice and the rule of law.”
The allusion to years spent as director of public prosecutions is noteworthy. The Labour leader’s pre-parliamentary record as a lawyer has been scoured by No 10 for use one day in attack dossiers. Starmer is wise to burnish his credentials as a tough-guy pursuer of villainy in anticipation of the charge that he was a liberal softie.
In the same vein, Starmer wants to restore patriotism to the repertoire of values that Labour can comfortably claim as its own. Being a patriot is one of those qualities – like having a sense of humour – that cannot be self-certified, but the intent shows awareness of a major deficiency in the party’s image under its previous management. Jeremy Corbyn was not mentioned in the speech, so even if there had been an audience, there would have been no awkward moment for Starmer, smiling thinly while the crowd cheered his predecessor’s name.
By reducing the scope for conspicuous displays of continuity Corbynism, the virtual conference format has done the new leader a favour. Johnson, by contrast, must crave contact with a hall full of Tory activists. It would be an easier gig than the Commons chamber, where even his own side has grown impatient with the rambling raconteur shtick that was so lucrative on the after-dinner circuit. His flimsy grasp of detail is routinely exposed under interrogation by Starmer.
The prime minister’s statement on new anti-coronavirus measures today radiated fatigue, even boredom, as if the pandemic has let him down with its persistent, nagging infection rate.
Johnson is a performer who draws energy from the crowd. He needs the complicity of laughs and the surge of ovations to buoy him along. But there is nothing funny about Covid and nothing to cheer in his government’s handling of it. He cannot refight battles he has already won, over Brexit and against Corbyn’s Labour party.
He comes across as a man who senses that he is losing, but isn’t quite sure to whom. It isn’t the virus, nor is it the opposition. He is being beaten by his own unfitness to do the job, and there is no campaign to remedy that.
• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist