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.

When blame’s not a game

GUEST POST: Fraser Raleigh is an Associate Director at SEC Newsgate and a former Conservative Special AdviserFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

As the Prime Minister held a sombre press conference last night to mark the grim milestone of 100,000 Covid-19 deaths in the UK, he might have thought back to when he stood at the Downing Street podium all the way back on 12 March last year – two weeks before the first lockdown – and delivered the stark warning that: “I must level with you, level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” Few could have imagined at the time quite how many more families that warning would sadly become a reality for.

How the Prime Minister’s claim yesterday that ‘we did all we could’ is viewed will depend entirely on existing perceptions of the government and its performance. It will variously be interpreted as a plaintive insistence that the government has worked in good faith to tackle a once-in-a-century crisis, as an admission that the government’s best was simply not good enough, or as an attempt to counter blame by insisting that nothing more could have been done by any government.

Throughout the pandemic, blame has never been too far from the surface of the political debate. Responding to the death toll, Labour said yesterday that ‘monumental mistakes’ have been made and at Prime Minister’s Questions today Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer pushed the Prime Minister on the UK’s death toll, asking repeatedly: ‘why?’.

The list of things the government has been accused of getting wrong is a familiar one: being too slow to lockdown, slow off the mark in ensuring the provision of PPE, confused on its messaging on masks, failing to protect social care, stuttering in its initial ramp up of testing, cumbersome in establishing a test, trace and isolate system, too quick to attempt to return the economy to normality over the summer, forced to U-turn over the ill-fated exam results algorithm, too slow to implement a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown in the autumn, overpromising on the easing of restrictions over Christmas, too slow to enter the current lockdown, and insisting schools return for the new term before closing them. Critics of the government, business groups, trade unions and sector bodies will all have their own to add to that list.

How and when to apportion blame has been part of the politics of the pandemic from the start, with Labour leader Keir Starmer accusing the Prime Minister of wishing away problems rather than confronting them early enough and the Prime Minister portraying Starmer as ‘Captain Hindsight’, wanting to score political points rather than pulling together, backing the government’s efforts and waiting until the pandemic is over before learning lessons from it.

That attempt to defer blame until the end of the pandemic makes both political and practical sense for the government while overstretched ministers, officials and public health workers are flat out dealing with both the effects of the current wave of the pandemic and the mass-roll out of the vaccines that will get us out of it.

But the often talked about public inquiry that will come when the dust settles and normal life returns will not produce a standalone cathartic moment that neatly assigns blame and allows the country to move on with one shared view of what it has collectively been through.

Public inquiries take time. They are laborious and forensic, as the ongoing Grenfell Tower and the Infected Blood Inquires – both opened in 2017 – and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse – launched even earlier – have all demonstrated. Often the time-consuming, legalistic and methodical nature of inquiries causes frustration and further pain to those who want answers. The future inquiry into how Covid-19 was handled will no doubt face similar challenges.

And in any case, public inquiries are very different from public opinion, which unlike political blame is far from black and white. It is subjective, reflecting existing political views, different personal experiences, and perceptions of individual leaders. But it can also recognise different narratives as being true at the same time, such as the UK being among the worst in the world for Covid-19 deaths and among the best in the world for not just distributing but discovering the vaccines that provide an escape from the last year.

How blame is formally apportioned during any inquiry, how politicians attempt to assign or avoid it, and how the public view both will be a central part of British politics for many years as the long legacy of the pandemic remains with us.

At the heart of maintaining public confidence that lessons are learned – whoever and whatever deserves blame – will be ensuring that at the centre of it all are those families – many more even than the Prime Minister warned last March – who did go on to lose loved ones before their time.

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This piece was written for the SEC Newsgate blog.

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.

New PM, autumn reception

Adam said:

On behalf of our chair, patrons and directors, I would like to congratulate the Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP on being elected Leader of the Conservative Party and on becoming our next Prime Minister (effective Wednesday, July 24, after PMQs). We wish the incoming No10 communications team well. In addition, we thank the Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP for his commitment and applaud his excellent campaign.

It is our intention to invite someone from the new administration to speak at our reception on Wednesday, October 23, which will take place at the Ellwood Atfield Gallery and is sponsored by Built Environment Communications Group (BECG) – one of the top three fastest growing PR consultancies in the UK (PR Week). You can RSVP here.