How Sir Keir Starmer finds himself at mercy of events – Bill Carmichael

BEING the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition is one of the most important jobs in politics – and probably the most thankless, as I suspect Sir Keir Starmer is currently discovering.

It is important because scrutinising government policies, highlighting failures and generally holding those in power to account on behalf of voters, is a vital function of our democratic system. In short it keeps the Prime Minister and the rest of the Cabinet on their toes.

But it is also thankless because, despite the heavy weight of responsibility of leading the second largest party in Parliament, it carries very little real power, and instead involves a lot of impotent shouting from the sidelines.

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And at a time when the news is dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, opposition leaders have to shout all the louder to gain any attention at all.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has just delivered a major speech on the economy.Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has just delivered a major speech on the economy.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has just delivered a major speech on the economy.

Take this week when Sir Keir delivered a speech declaring that there could no return to “business as usual” after the virus is defeated, and castigating the Conservatives for a “failed ideology” that has “weakened the foundations of society”.

It was a strong speech that set out a bigger role for government in the future and a new partnership with business that “tackles inequality, invests in the future and builds a more secure and prosperous economy”.

All fine and dandy. But the problem for Labour is the question: “Is anyone listening?” The answer, at a time when an election – and Labour’s chance to put these words into action – could be more than three years away, is probably not a lot.

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Sir Keir may not be the most exciting politician around, but his election as Labour leader in April last year was a necessary return to sanity after the crazy Corbyn cult had dragged the party’s reputation into the gutter and led to the worst election result since 1935.

Jeremy Corbyn is the former Labour leader.Jeremy Corbyn is the former Labour leader.
Jeremy Corbyn is the former Labour leader.

With the far left of the party utterly humiliated, it was a chance for Sir Keir to show what a difference sensible, competent and decent leadership could make to Labour’s fortunes.

And at first he cut an impressive figure – calm, forensic, well briefed and a perfect counterpoint to Boris Johnson’s blustering, off-the-cuff style. There were clear signs he had the Prime Minister and the Conservatives rattled.

But since then he has wobbled from left to right. At some points he has taken on the left, by suspending Corbyn from the party over his response to allegations of anti-Semitism during his time as leader, and by promoting a patriotic “faith, flag and family” approach to try to win back working class voters in the “Red Wall” seats in the North and Midlands that switched to the Conservatives in 2019.

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Yet the next minute he was alienating precisely those voters by “taking the knee” to the Black Lives Matter movement in an empty piece of political posturing.

Is Sir Keir Starmer proving to be an effective Opposition leader?Is Sir Keir Starmer proving to be an effective Opposition leader?
Is Sir Keir Starmer proving to be an effective Opposition leader?

As a result, his approval ratings in the polls have begun to slide, and most pollsters show the Conservatives have a small but consistent lead over Labour more than a year after the election, and despite all the missteps in the Covid response with more than 100,000 UK deaths recorded so far.

The extreme left will always hate him because of his treatment of Corbyn, but even his former allies in the centre are now whispering against him.

He is criticised for going easy on the Government and not explaining what 
he would do differently and why. But when he does precisely that he is 
derided as “Captain Hindsight” who claims to be right after the fact. He can’t win!

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In truth Sir Keir’s success as Labour leader, and chances of becoming Prime Minister, probably depend less on his fine personal qualities, and more on things he can’t control – what former premier Harold Macmillan described as “events, dear boy, events”.

In short if the Government’s brilliantly executed vaccine roll-out leads to big falls in infection and death rates from the virus, and if the country begins to return to some semblance of normality some time over the summer, then I believe voters will forgive Johnson for many of the undoubted mistakes he made during the pandemic, and Sir Keir’s task will be all the more difficult.

It could be three years before voters go to the polls in a general election again, but the events of 2021, and the course of the pandemic, may give us a strong idea who will win.

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