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.

Has BoJo lost his mojo? No, and he’s shovel-ready

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications

It’s been almost a year since members elected Boris Johnson as Leader of the Conservative Party and British Prime Minister, and six months since he won a personal mandate from the country – and a stonking majority at that! How is he performing? This piece looks at some of the highs and lows, as well as the future ahead.

The highs

I deal in facts not fiction, so let’s start with the polls. Last December, the UK returned a Tory-led government for the fourth time in a decade: a 44% share of the vote (14m ballots) won him 365 seats* – a Conservative MP for each day of the Gregorian calendar. Today, according to Politico’s Poll of Polls, public support for the ‘People’s Government’ is holding firm.

What’s he achieved vs what did he guarantee? A week after that seismic result in 2019, the Government published its Queen’s Speech, outlining the ‘People’s Priorities.’ Chief among them was Mr Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done in January” [2020], which he quickly did. Michael Gove recently confirmed that the UK will “neither accept nor seek any extension to the Transition Period.”

“Extra funding for the NHS” has been enshrined in law and the number of new nurses has increased compared to last year.

Over 3,000 of his “20,000 more police” have been recruited and Robert Buckland has brought about “tougher sentences for criminals”, including the most serious terrorist offenders. “An Australian-style points-based system to control immigration”, as part of a much broader Bill, is due to have its report stage and third reading.

It’s true that millions more have been “invested…in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure,” and that good progress – new consultations and plans to increase investment – has been made towards “Reaching Net Zero by 2050.” All this while not raising “the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance.”

The lows

Britain has been transformed by the coronavirus crisis. The number of GP surgery appointments per annum is likely to be down, not up. 310,000 people, including the Prime Minister and Matt Hancock, have tested positive for the disease. Of those, sadly, 43,500 have died – one of the highest figures in the world. It’s inevitable that there will be, and it’s right that – in time – there is, an inquiry. Lessons must be learned.

Because of Covid-19 – and the measures this government has introduced to combat it – UK public debt has “exceeded 100% of GDP for the first time since 1963.”

The death of George Floyd sparked many protests abroad and at home. A minority of people, on both ends of the spectrum, including Antifa, exploited Black Lives Matter, to behave quite irresponsibly. Our politicians have a vital role to play in healing divisions and addressing issues, which is why I – and others – were surprised it took Mr Johnson – the author of a book about his hero – time to speak out.

Number 10’s handling of these events has created a perception – among backbenchers and commentators – that the Prime Minister has misplaced his mojo.

An analysis

So, some clear wins (promises made, promises kept) and some evident challenges, but challenges that can be overcome with a bold and ambitious plan. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.

And yet, if you spend your time talking to Londoners, following the mainstream media and scrolling through Twitter, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Government was about to collapse at any given moment – that Sir Keir Starmer, by asking a couple of questions each Wednesday and by sacking Rebecca Wrong-Daily, is about to gain 120 seats for Labour. The mountain’s too high to climb.

These are the same people who: predicted Remain would win the Brexit referendum by a landslide, never imagined Donald J. Trump would become US President and thought Jeremy Corbyn might actually win in 2017 (and two years later). The same people who were confident Priti Patel would resign and Dominic Cummings would be fired, and tweet #WhereisBoris on a nearly daily basis.

That said, 44% can be improved upon and regardless of whether there’s any truth in it – perceptions are hard to shake-off. And so, the Government must listen. In particular, No10 must listen to its backbenchers. They are ideally placed to feedback on any disillusionment across the country, before decisions are made. A new liaison between No10 and the Parliamentary Party should be hired.

In my opinion, the appointment would help the Government make sound policy decisions from the get-go and reduce the number of U-turns in the long-run. However, U-turns aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Like subpoenas (writs “commanding a person designated in it to appear in court under a penalty for failure”), they needn’t be seen as negative – rather a means of making right.

This government should also listen to experienced conservatives in communications. We recently polled our supporters and they rated its coronavirus communications strategy 3.18 out of 5. While positive, it’s clear improvements can be made. First-up, was phasing out daily press briefings, which I’m glad it has done. I’d also like to see more women MPs around the Cabinet table at the next reshuffle.

What we need to hear from Mr Johnson tomorrow, in Dudley, is how he’s going to help Britain rebuild itself and win again after the lockdown. I hope he makes us feel proud about our identity and culture and that his vision is aspirational and opportunistic. The British people have put their faith in him before – a few for the first time – and I’m sure they’ll continue to keep it, if he listens and acts accordingly.

*Election data

 2010201520172019
Votes (000s)10,70411,30013,63713,966
% of UK vote36.136.842.343.6
Seats won 306 330 317 365
% of seats won47.150.848.856.2

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (June 29, 2020).