Tories should fear Sir Keir – and figure how to beat him

GUEST POST: Peter Cardwell advised four Cabinet ministers in the May and Johnson administrations. He is the author of ‘The Secret Life of Special Advisers’, published on October 27. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

We’ve seen a lot of Keir Starmer this week: a Marr sit-down, a set-piece speech in lieu of a conference speech – in front of a handy physical red wall – and another strong performance at PMQs, understandably leading on test and trace. However, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Keir Starmer’s views. Would he back a future EU trade deal? Is he in favour of extending the transition period? Would he go for another Scottish independence referendum? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But, what I – as a Tory – do know is on a much more fundamental level he scares the living daylights out of me.   

His detoxification of the Labour brand is going just a bit too well. His new phrase “a new leadership” may be bland, however it is not meaningless. Because it is allowing Starmer, very effectively, to distance himself from the three greatest problems which dogged Corbyn: antisemitism, patriotism and security. 

On antisemitism, Starmer came down very hard on Rebecca Long-Bailey in June, sacking the former Shadow Education Secretary after she retweeted an article containing an antisemitic conspiracy theory. Helpfully for Starmer, John McDonnell stood in solidarity with her. Starmer looked decisive, leaderly and even gained praise from the Board of Deputies. 

On patriotism, can you honestly imagine Corbyn reacting to the “Rule, Britannia!” row with a strong defence of the “pomp and pageantry” as “a staple of British summer”? Thought not. 

And on security – Corbyn’s weakest issue – at PMQs three weeks ago Starmer reacted with genuine fury when Boris Johnson suggested Starmer was soft on terrorism because he had backed Corbyn. Starmer’s record as Director of Public Prosecutions speaks for itself, and Labour strategists plan to remind the public often of their leader’s key role in prosecuting the terrorists who planned the Heathrow bomb plot, ‘Britain’s 9/11’. And it’s no accident that Starmer returned to this theme in his leader’s address on Monday. There could hardly be a less Corbyn phrase than expressing a desire for: “security for our nation, our families and all of our communities… We love this country as you do.” 

In fairness, we Conservatives have had it good for so long when it comes to Opposition leaders.  Ed Miliband was a man who couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich effectively, never mind run a country. Jeremy Corbyn was popular with people who didn’t come out to vote and scared away many sensible people who did into voting Conservative. Along with Dominic Cummings and bearded Antipodean svengali Isaac Levido, Corbyn was one of we Conservatives’ three greatest assets in December’s election. 

And despite his lack of charisma, his slightly plodding manner and a front bench a little too full of unknowns, Starmer continues to subtly, slowly put clear red water between himself and his predecessor. This brand detoxification is the hugely important first step. 

So much so that CCHQ attacks on Starmer have been linking him to Corbyn, just as Republicans attack Joe Biden by linking him to the more toxic Hillary Clinton. That’s just not strong enough a strategy, and the Conservative operation will need to work harder. Starmer has certainly got me worried. And that’s why we Conservatives need to start planning how to beat him in 2024 right now. 

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This piece was written for The Times.

Language matters – get Brexit done and dusted

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector.

For some sections of society, politicians and journalists are among the least trusted professions. While my experiences are largely positive, I understand that frustration. I believe that the UK’s decision to leave the EU presents both with the ideal opportunity to repair that trust by delivering and reporting on the popular point of view.

There are exceptions to every rule and US president Donald J. Trump, UK prime minister Boris Johnson and Italian hopeful Matteo Salvini are them. They understand that the populist and what they see as patriotic PoV demands that politicians place stronger emphasis on national security as well as unique culture and identity, including their respective countries’ Christian heritage. By putting America first, returning sovereignty – by delivering on Brexit, and having sought to control immigration from the Mediterranean Sea – Trump, Johnson and Salvini are, and were, seeking to deliver on the ‘will of the people’. 

I highlight Salvini here (despite his very recent and perhaps temporary exit from Government) as I learned more about him while touring Tuscany and Umbria earlier this year. Yes, to want to move forward – beyond our relationship with the EU – doesn’t equate to being anti-European. I am in no doubt that Brits will continue to holiday, live and work in Europe long after October 31st.

These politicians are increasingly leveraging rallies, social media and alternative channels to push out messages and communicate with their electorates. They’re not doing this to simply keep-up with the changing times but because people are losing faith in the mainstream media.

There have been several occasions where the accuracy and impartiality of some reporting has been called into question such as the coverage of the recent Tory leadership contest and this week’s debate in the House of Commons chamber. I very much support press freedom but would encourage journalists to be extra prudent. As Alastair Stewart tweeted: ‘It becomes increasingly difficult for the public to get their heads around what is happening in our politics if supposedly independent TV reporters keep giving us their views rather than the facts.’ Andrew Marr responded with: ‘Analysis fine, hard questions essential, but our views? Not wanted on voyage.’ I agree with both. In short, the momentum wasn’t behind Rory Stewart, and the loony left, including Labour’s John McDonnell, have said much worse.

Looking ahead, perhaps a general election will present another opportunity for both journalists and politicians alike to fix this disconnect and yes, move forward. Let’s get Brexit done and dusted – instead of further debate and delay – and take the fight to Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan.

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This piece was written for Politicalite (September 29, 2019). It was syndicated on BrexitCentral (September 29, 2019).