It’s going to be a long old week for Keir Starmer. One which will be first spent trying to convince the country he hasn’t given up on winning the Hartlepool byelection and then, almost certainly, explaining why he never expected to hold on to the north-eastern constituency anyway.
The Labour leader’s day had got off to a bad start with a Survation opinion poll, commissioned by ITV’s Good Morning Britain, showing the Tories held a 17% lead over Labour in Hartlepool; a seat that had never gone to the Conservatives in its history. GMB’s Susanna Reid cut to the chase. “Why were things going so wrong?” she asked.
“I’ve been to Hartlepool three times now,” Starmer began. Though maybe he might have been better off visiting less frequently, as every time he showed his face Labour appeared to do worse in the polls. Starmer pressed on. It was jobs that were coming up with the voters he had met and only he was promising to improve job security.
Which rather suggested he had been having different conversations than the ones others had been holding or that the people he had met had been humouring him. Because it looked to everyone else that either people had now decided they were quite happy with more than a decade of Tory governments or that Labour was still viewed as an anti-Brexit party and that those who had voted for the Brexit party in 2019 were now planning on backing the Conservatives.
After Starmer had merely repeated his jobs, jobs, jobs mantra, Reid asked him about the photo opportunity in the John Lewis wallpaper department. Why had he bothered? Starmer sighed. He had known at the time it was a bad idea – after all, only Boris Johnson was ever given a free pass on such lame political stunts – but now he was obliged to defend a weak visual gag as serious commentary on Tory sleaze and spending priorities by getting sidelined on to nurses’ pay. Reid was unimpressed. “Was it really that bad to spend money on doing up Downing Street?” she said. The GMB presenter clearly sees a future in sponsored government. Suits with Betfred logos. Just like the snooker players. Nappies donated by Dyson. The possibilities were endless.
Reid’s sidekick, Adil Ray, went for the jugular by going back to Hartlepool. If Labour did lose on Thursday, would Starmer consider standing down as leader? Starmer dodged the question by insisting the byelection was not yet lost. Hopefully also, most pundits would spend more time dissecting the Scottish results than one byelection. Fingers crossed for an SNP overall majority. That really would give the Tories a headache. And besides, his position was surely safe enough for now. Did Labour MPs really want another leadership election so soon after the last one? Who knew whom the members might choose next time round?
Things didn’t get any more comfortable for Starmer an hour later when he was interviewed by Mishal Husain on the Today programme. Did he accept that Thursday’s results would be a reflection of his leadership? He did. In which case, Husain said, if the dismal results of the 2019 general election were down to a combination of Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit, to what would he attribute the loss of Hartlepool?
“My job is to win the next general election,” he said, carefully side-stepping the question. “We have a mountain to climb and we’re climbing it.” Only Starmer currently gives the impression of someone who is doing more sliding down than climbing up. Then maybe you need a few falls before you reach the summit. Still, whatever the extenuating circumstances of there being no Brexit party candidate to split the Tory vote this time round, no one really expected Labour to be going backwards from its 2019 position.
Er, yes, Husain observed. But we’re talking about a seat that Labour has always held. Surely it was blindingly obvious the polls indicate that the punters didn’t give a toss about sleaze and broken promises. They were happy enough for Johnson to do what he liked and to have caused the deaths of thousands of people from his mishandling of the coronavirus response in the early months of the pandemic. The vaccine rollout was going just fine and they were prepared to go along with the Tories’ “levelling up” agenda even if they didn’t really believe it would ever happen. Boris was successfully selling a vision. Even if it turned out to be a Ponzi scheme. So where was Labour’s big transformational ideas?
“And fifthly … ” said Starmer, having run through four other plans for the future. Somehow even when he was trying to share his dream, he managed to find a form of language to disengage his listeners. Before he could get to sixthly, Husain switched the subject. Focus groups saw him as an aloof “Mighty Eagle”, soaring above the political battleground. So what could he say about himself that might surprise voters?
This was the time for Starmer to let rip. To have shown some genuine passion about what motivates him. Or to have lied about making models of buses. Instead we got the standard politician’s response. That he liked meeting people. He couldn’t have sounded duller if he had tried. Then maybe the one surprise about Starmer is that there is no surprise. And right now, that’s not a vote-winning look.