Sir Keir – duller than dull

GUEST POST: Peter Bingle is Director at The Terrapin Group. Connect on LinkedIn

There is no more thankless job in British politics than being Leader of the Opposition. This is even more of a truism during a pandemic when the public mood dictates that politicians put to one side petty partisan point scoring and do what’s best in the national interest. The normal rules of the game are suspended. It is difficult to be different.

That said, the case of Sir Keir Starmer is a curious one. There is no doubting him as a caring and thoughtful politician. His legal career confirms his academic acumen. And yet something is missing. Charisma. He doesn’t have any!

Starmer is Leader of the Labour Party because he isn’t Jeremy Corbyn. An understandable reason perhaps but not sufficient, particularly when the Prime Minister is somebody called Boris Johnson. Starmer suffers from an affliction called anonymity.

Starmer’s weakness is cruelly exposed every Wednesday at PMQs. He methodically dissects the government’s track record and highlights numerous mistakes. He uses the PM’s previous statements and decisions against him. The trouble is it doesn’t work against a PM who brushes asides facts and figures and answers questions he was never asked! Boris has panache. Starmer has none.

There will be some who point to Clement Attlee. Churchill once jibed: “Mr Attlee is a modest man, with much to be modest about!” Attlee then went on to win the 1945 general election. The comparison doesn’t really work today because of the crazy world in which we live. There is no private time for senior politicians. They are exposed to the public glare twenty-four seven. Boris loves it. I’m not so sure Starmer does.

Starmer’s other major weakness is his lack of connectivity to the common man. Despite coming from very ordinary circumstances (unlike Boris!), Starmer doesn’t seem to understand what really matters to working class folk. His (mis)handling of the Brexit issue was one of the principal reasons for the Tories smashing Labour’s red wall of northern seats. His suggestion that the way to win them back is for Labour to be more patriotic was rightly dismissed. It might seem a sensible idea in a large house in wealthy Camden, but further north it came across as rather patronising. And it was …

Supporters of Starmer will point out that more time is needed for him to start a conversation with the British people. They don’t really know anything about him. Once the pandemic is sorted, he will travel the country meeting the people. Perhaps, but remember the tragic case of Jo Swinson. The more the public got to know her the less they liked her to the point she lost her seat at the general election.

So, to summarise. Starmer is a good, decent and thoughtful man. He is probably destined, however, to join that list of Labour Party leaders who never win a general election. Up against the life-force that is Boris Johnson, Starmer just comes across as very dull. Who would you rather spend time with? The answer is a no brainer. Such is the brutality of British politics.

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This piece was written for our website.

2021 local elections – to be or not to be?

GUEST POST: Joshua Woolliscroft is an Account Manager at MPC. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

For amateur and professional psephologists alike, this year’s local elections – if they go ahead – look set to be more exciting than usual. Not only is this the first electoral clash between the Prime Minister and Sir Keir Starmer, it is also a double batch with the 2020 cancelled contests rolled into one.

The big question is has the Government’s handling of the pandemic had an impact on its overall popularity? And, perhaps more crucially, will the successful roll out of the vaccine and the signing of the Brexit trade deal give Boris Johnson a surprise bounce?

Looking back at 2016 and 2017 – when these elections last took place – you see two very different pictures. 2016 was the swan song of David Cameron’s premiership, his last tilt at the polls ahead of the EU referendum. The election saw a swing against the Conservatives, leading to the loss of 50 councillors and one council. Conversely, in 2017, Theresa May took 11 councils; skewering UKIP on the right and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour on the left.

Although a notoriously inaccurate indication of local voting intention, the polls are stubbornly tied with the Government and HM Opposition jockeying for a one-point lead. CCHQ may be hoping for a repeat of 2016, where Labour squeaked a narrow lead with very little to show for it. While the launch of the Reform Party could chip away at vulnerable authorities, no one – except for Nigel Farage – is expecting a serious challenge from them right now.

Assuming the roll out of the vaccine remains on track throughout Winter and into Spring, the electorate may, just might, vote Conservative. Equally, delays or a perception of mismanagement could lead to a vengeful public seeing Labour as a slightly safer choice.

It is often said that the electorate is capable of anger, but rarely gratitude. A good day for the Prime Minister should be one the pundits barely notice, shaving a few councils and retaining most mayoralties. There has been a lot of talk about momentum in British politics. An average to fair result for the Tories in May (or later) could sap some much needed energy from Labour.

Hard as it is to believe, the first rays of a post Covid-19 morning could be on the horizon. If the Government wants to be re-elected in 2024, they need to seize the initiative of that new dawn. Avoiding a disaster this year should be the first step in the right direction.

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This piece was written for our website. 

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.

The elephant in the countryside

GUEST POST: Edward Rowlandson is Political Relations Manager at the Countryside Alliance. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

There is a stark contrast in fortunes between the Conservative Party and The Labour Party when it comes to the rural electorate. The Conservatives hold 177 of the 199 rural seats in England and Wales, Labour hold 17. The complete dominance of the Conservative Party has in turn awarded the Party the keys to No.10 in 2015, 2017 and 2019. The Conservatives know how to win in rural seats, whereas Labour has a problem.

The Countryside Alliance’s recent report explores Labour’s relationship with the countryside. The report focuses on Labour’s electoral fortunes in rural England and Wales over the past three general elections. As first recognised by Maria Eagle, Labour MP for Garston and Halewood, after the 2015 election, Labour had (and still has) a rural problem. However, it has been widely ignored by most in The Labour Party.

Labour did not always ignore the rural electorate. When it won the 1997 and 2001 general elections it boasted over 100 rural MPs reaching into the Conservative rural heartlands. At that time, Labour chose to engage with rural voters. However, over time the countryside and Labour have grown further and further apart. Constituency boundaries may have changed, but that cannot hide the situation Labour now finds itself in.

After the 2019 general election much has been made of Labour losing its ‘red wall’, but not much analysis or thought has been given to the complete collapse of Labour’s rural vote – losing 15 seats and going backwards in every rural seat it held. Yet, despite Labour’s worst result in the countryside (and country) since 1935 Labour continued, under Jeremy Corbyn, to prioritise the activities taken in the countryside rather than on the priorities of the countryside. During the Agriculture Bill Committee stages Labour attempted to stop anyone who had used a dog to hunt (including rats) from receiving future agriculture subsidies. Even when drafting problems were highlighted with the junior Shadow Defra Minister, she pressed the amendment to a vote. If it were not for Conservative colleagues in the committee, every farmer would not be entitled to any agricultural subsidy. This was a party that clearly did not understand the countryside nor was it willing to listen to those rural colleagues to the impact that their proposed amendments would cause. Defra Secretary of State, George Eustice, is right when he said: “Nationally, the Conservative Party has always had a much stronger affinity and understanding with rural communities, whether that is agricultural communities, but many others besides who have been farmers themselves and so understand that particular area.” In this instance, Labour’s actions proved the Secretary of State completely right.

However, under Sir Keir Starmer, The Labour Party has been more open to engagement with rural voters, and Luke Pollard, Shadow Defra Minister, wants to make Labour “the party of the countryside” and has even acknowledged Labour’s rural problem: “I think what we need to understand is that the route back to power, the way of winning back many of those communities is to recognise that we need to be there.”

It remains to be seen whether Labour will be able to fulfil their ambitions, however their admission of its rural problem is one that the Conservatives should note. If Labour start to challenge in the countryside Conservatives will have to match that challenge. Ironically the Labour 2019 general election strategy of targeting only urban seats worked – it now holds most of them. Therefore, the sooner it closes the gap in the countryside the closer it gets to No.10. The task for the Conservative Party is to maintain its dominance – currently at 89%. To do that the Conservatives have to show the rural electorate why they were right to put their trust in them. Polling from ORB International found that issues most important to the rural electorate are housing, healthcare and transport. These issues are the ones that need to be addressed; and will ultimately secure the Conservative Party continued success both in the countryside and in the country.  

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This piece was written for our website.