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Voices: Keir Starmer held his nerve and has eclipsed Boris Johnson as the year ends

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Keir Starmer was rewarded for his “strategic patience”, according to an ally, when just as the year ended, he took a clear lead over Boris Johnson as the leader people would prefer to have as prime minister.

For most of the year, as the government enjoyed the protection against the illness of unpopularity afforded by a successful vaccination programme, it looked as if the forward march of Labour had halted.

Starmer had begun the year in a strong position, ready for the next leg of the long march up Labour’s electoral mountain. His internal opposition had largely given up and gone home, disgusted with the obvious distance he had put between himself and his predecessor, now not even a Labour MP. A survey of party members in March this year found that Tony Blair was just as popular with them as Jeremy Corbyn. The party was clearly in the middle of a dramatic transformation.

Yet Starmer found himself going backwards, as Labour sank gently in the opinion polls. It was, mathematically, the result of the government and prime minister enjoying a vaccine boost in popularity, but it prompted bitter Corbynites to remind Blairites how they had predicted that under any other leader Labour would be 20 points ahead.

After the loss of Hartlepool in a by-election in May and a clash with Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, over the reshuffle that followed, he and his party seemed to suffer a crisis of confidence. It wasn’t just the Corbynites who were disillusioned with Starmer – despairing Blairites who supported him confided sadly that they didn’t think he was up to the job, and that the best the party could hope for was that he would be a transitional leader of the kind that Neil Kinnock had been.

The breach with Rayner was serious, and would continue to be for the rest of the year, but she was no threat to Starmer’s position as leader. Even in the lowest months of the summer, there was no serious talk of a leadership challenge. The Socialist Campaign Group of MPs did not have the numbers to trigger a leadership election, let alone a candidate; Rayner had been one of theirs but she had compromised with the ideological enemy in the party. The non-Corbynite majority of Labour MPs didn’t have an alternative candidate either; hence their mood of gloom and fatalism.

Starmer himself remained grimly determined, with only one outburst of temper – or, at least, only one that was reported to the outside world, and that was after a delay of many months, suggesting that the inner team remained loyal throughout. During the Hartlepool campaign, when opinion polls made clear Labour was going to lose, he was reported by The Times (earlier this month) to have shouted to his team: “Everyone hates us, everyone hates us, why do they hate us? Why won’t anyone tell me anything?”

It was the last bit that was telling, implying that there was no one around him who was prepared to bring him bad news – honest feedback being a basic requirement of any functioning organisation, as Starmer would have known from running the Crown Prosecution Service. Hence some of the changes to the leader’s office which he has made since then.

Around the middle of the year, however, the tide started to turn.

Even as Labour drew level in voting intention polls in November, Starmer limped behind Johnson in the “preferred prime minister” polling. Despite the prime minister’s problems, from the fall of Kabul to the defence of Owen Paterson, the myth of his personal invincibility seemed to persist. Starmer turned in some more relaxed performances at Prime Minister’s Questions, starting to look more confident and suggesting that he had finally got the measure of Johnson. In his party conference speech – in which Corbyn supporters were reduced to impotent heckling – Starmer derided Johnson as a “trivial” politician; in the Commons, Starmer repeated the line “the joke is wearing thin”.

It was an attempt to turn Starmer’s weaknesses into strengths. His dullness became steadiness; his earnestness became “a serious leader for serious times”. A source in the leader’s office told me that, “with Keir, the Labour Party has the strongest message discipline we’ve had in years”. And finally, it worked.

The prime minister suddenly hit real unpopularity in the last month of the year. The vaccine effect wore off, and the stories of parties in Downing Street last year blew up a bomb marked “double standards” which had been sitting unexploded for some time under the weakening structure. “Our ‘one rule for them’ framing is paying off,” said the source, “with Johnson proving it to be true time and again.

“As people increasingly see through Johnson’s bluster and feel the impact of his lack of decisions, we’ve created space to show that Keir is the serious politician needed for post-pandemic Britain.”

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Now all the polls are reporting not just that Labour is in the lead but that people would rather have Starmer as prime minister than the incumbent. Different polling companies report widely differing figures on this question, but even Savanta ComRes, long the least favourable to Starmer, now has him two points ahead of Johnson when people are asked: “Which of the following do you think would make the best prime minister?” Starmer on 33 per cent and Johnson on 31 per cent are both eclipsed by “don’t know” on 36 per cent, but politics is a game of relative advantage. And Ipsos MORI has Starmer 13 points ahead, while other pollsters also show him outperforming his party.

If Starmer’s mid-year trough was the mathematical product of Johnson’s vaccine-induced rise, his end-year breakthrough could be dismissed as the mere reflection of the prime minister’s unpopularity – but it feels more soundly based than that. Some of the more detailed polling questions, which have given Johnson the benefit of the doubt all year, have also turned. Focaldata found that Starmer is regarded as more trustworthy than Johnson, better equipped to make tough decisions and more competent.

Of course, the Conservative Party will take evasive action, up to and including changing leader, before the next election, but we can now see that Labour’s doom and gloom about Starmer’s anti-charisma and Johnson’s Teflon qualities were overdone. People can see Starmer as a prime minister, and a reputation for competence is a priceless asset: those two things mean that Labour’s forward march has resumed.

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