OPINION - To be PM Keir Starmer must show us who he is, not just who he isn’t

·4-min read
 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

The bleak fate of many Opposition leaders is to be remembered as necessary but not sufficient. Yes, they advanced the cause of their powerless parties. Their work made a difference and was essential to electoral recovery; but not so much that they themselves made it to the promised land.

Sir Keir Starmer’s speech last night ticked off yet another box on the daunting to-do list he inherited from Jeremy Corbyn when he became Labour leader in April 2020. To his great credit, he has done much to remove the stain of anti-semitism from the party. He has restored the appearance of professionalism that was sacrificed on the altar of the Left’s student politics and ideological arrogance.

Heading off the old Tory accusation that Labour would form a “coalition of chaos” with the SNP if it failed to win a Commons majority, he has already signalled that he would not be willing to grant another referendum on Scottish independence.

And last night he categorically ruled out a reversal of Brexit. Not only that: Starmer was explicit that a Labour government would not lead the UK back into the single market, customs union or any relationship with the European Union that restored freedom of movement.

For such a dyed-in-the wool pro-European, these words must have tasted like ash. But every one of them was essential. Politics moves forward, and those who seek to turn the clock back are punished at the ballot box.

In 2019, the Tories won a thumping general election victory with the slogan: “Get Brexit Done.” Having suffered its worst defeat since 1935, Labour, when next it goes to the country, cannot be even slightly vulnerable to the charge that it would undo Brexit.

Instead, Starmer offered an inventory of measures that would “make Brexit work” — a solution to the vexed issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a bonfire of paperwork, help for scientists and service providers who work with the EU, a security pact with Europe, and so on.

All of which was necessary but not sufficient. At his grand centrist conference last week, Tony Blair expressed sympathy with Starmer, who faces a greater task than almost any of his predecessors. What took Labour more than a decade to achieve before the landslide of 1997, he has to accomplish in a single parliament: effectively, he has to be, single-handedly, Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Blair.

When I interviewed Blair for Tortoise the morning after the conference, the former Labour Prime Minister insisted that Starmer was equal to this task and that the sheer volatility of modern politics meant the process of recovery could be compressed into much shorter periods of time than in the past. Correctly, Blair identified the future-facing issues that are just waiting for Labour to make its own: the tech revolution, climate change, the modernisation of healthcare. All the same, he acknowledged that “Labour has got to be a different political party if it’s to win”.

Which is the crux of the matter. To be a different political party, Labour must be led by the kind of politician that comes along very rarely: an individual who is visibly impatient for change, fizzing with new ideas, exuding kinetic energy and a hunger for power.

Of Labour’s plans for office, Starmer said last night that he was “going to be saying a lot more about how we achieve that in the weeks and months to come.” Well, he had better hurry up. There are those around Johnson who believe a snap October election is the best way to draw a line under the Tory leadership-crisis-without-end.

The odds are still against such an electoral gamble. What is indisputable is that the countdown to polling day has begun — and Starmer has not yet moved beyond the stage of promising a summer of speeches.

To escape Opposition requires much more than technocracy, reasonableness and visible competence. The leader of the party staking its claim to office must incarnate a spirit of apparently unstoppable change; a set of values and ideas that are much more than a policy manual and, as Blair put it last week, make the party’s proposals “sing”.

Starmer has established that he is not-Corbyn. He now needs to show, with brio and panache, that he is the post-Johnson statesman the nation needs. Sad to say, he is not even close to achieving that yet — and time is emphatically not on his side.

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