One of the problems of facing the most abject government there has ever been is that people are starting to take Keir Starmer rather more seriously than he would like, and arguably more seriously than he deserves.
It’s not clear whether or not the Labour leader’s actual strategy is simply to become prime minister by default, but to do so may be harder than he had been hoping.
For quite a while now, Starmer has developed a remarkable knack for listing all of the arguments with regard to a particular issue, then quietly not stating which one he actually agrees with.
He is currently seeking not so much to walk a tightrope on immigration but to shuffle his way along it and hope not to get too chafed. Not that long ago he was in favour of a return to free movement. On Tuesday he told businesses they would have to wean themselves off “immigration dependency”.
That cheap foreign labour is only ever a sticking plaster. If you think you’ve heard this stuff before, you have. It’s almost verbatim the Johnson promise to build a “high wage, high skills economy”, which sounded good but made no practical sense, which is just as true when Keir Starmer says it.
Telling businesses they need to wean themselves off foreign labour is also not wholly unlike Theresa May just repeating, over and over again, that Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it, without ever actually articulating how, or coming up with any way it can be made a success – which it can’t.
It’s possible that this should have been seen coming. Starmer, don’t forget, is the architect of Labour’s Brexit policy at the 2019 election, which in case you’ve forgotten, was a commitment to a second referendum, for which the party would decide its own position via a special one day conference, and whatever it decided, the prime minister (Jeremy Corbyn) would not campaign in it.
That really was the plan. Vote Labour and you’ll have absolutely no idea what you’re going to get, because we don’t either. It’s not a good way to do politics, that. And yet he appears to be attempting to try the same all over again.
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At Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), he had a go at Rishi Sunak over the details of his energy windfall plan, and again brought up Sunak’s refusal to abolish non-dom status. Non-dom status is a moral outrage (I happen to have a couple of non-dom friends and no one thinks it’s more of a moral outrage than them), but it’s highly debatable as to whether ending it would swell the national coffers or shrink them. And mainly it’s a very easy hit, given he has not even managed to abolish non-dom status in his own household.
Keir Starmer probably will win the next general election by default. But he has tried before to be all things to all people. He has already fought an election while trying to keep every single option on the table, especially on Brexit. He is still a long, long way short of telling people what he really stands for, as opposed to who he is, where he grew up and what his father did.
On the accumulated public comments, there’s simply no way of knowing what he really believes on the subject of immigration. At this point it is still perhaps strategic. It will not be long until it starts to appear not smart, but slippery.