2 June 2021

How worried should the Tories be about ‘box office’ Starmer?


Westminster’s take on Keir Starmer’s tear-strewn appearance on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories seems to be that it will make absolutely no difference to his political fortunes. The viewing figures weren’t particularly impressive – 1.6m people tuned in compared to the 3.7m who watched Coronation Street immediately before it aired. In other words 2.1m people switched off ITV the minute he came on, hardly box office stuff.

It’s also become a cliché of political commentary that nobody pays any attention to the Leader of the Opposition until there’s an election, least of all at a time of national crisis when the Government has an 80-seat majority. But there are a few things about Piers v Keir that should worry the Conservatives.

For one, he is the first leader Labour have had since Tony Blair capable of pulling an interview like this off. Jeremy Corbyn’s default attitude to the media was sneering hostility, Ed Miliband tried his best but never managed to shake the perception that he was a bit too feeble and nerdy for leadership, and Gordon Brown’s obvious discomfort in front of cameras eventually just made people feel sorry for him. By contrast Starmer came across as both human and statesmanlike.

It’s a mistake to think that doesn’t matter. Policy is important, but so much in politics depends on the elusive personal qualities that convince people a leader is on their side and can win. Before the 2017 election Theresa May was riding high in the polls, candidates were putting “Theresa May’s team” on their leaflets, and the Tories were on course for a crushing victory. But with her robotic media performances under the scrutiny a campaign trail brings, she flailed. Labour can at least be assured that when the time comes, and their leader does come under the spotlight, he’ll be ready.

And that’s the next thing that might give CCHQ pause – Starmer has shown that he’s serious. Unlike his predecessor, he clearly wants power and is prepared to jump through fiery primetime hoops and show a bit of emotional leg to do it. He doesn’t just want to talk to a loony fringe, he wants to talk to the nation.

That said, one swallow does not make a summer, and this interview alone isn’t going to turn Labour’s luck around. For a start, what he actually had to say wasn’t particularly enlightening. He had next to no ideas about policy, nor any recognisable vision for the country. When asked what three words he would use to describe ‘Keir Starmer’s Britain’ he replied, “pride in our country, dignity – dignity for children growing up and dignity of work – and change”. Inspiring.

As for the man himself, we already knew he was an intelligent guy from a relatively ordinary background who’s had a stellar legal career. That he’s professionally impressive is ‘priced in’.

Matt Singh has written on these pages about the enormous mountain Labour has to climb, not just to win back the 123 seats it needs to scrape an overall majority, but to detoxify itself. To do that Starmer will need to find a way to connect with people. One of the things that baffles many lefty remain types is that Boris Johnson, an old Etonian and a Conservative to boot, has found a way to communicate with people who felt abandoned by other politicians. Whatever you think about Boris, he’s a proven winner. If Starmer is to have any hope of chipping away at the Tories’ current poll lead he’ll need to do more than just look like a Prime Minister and have a good CV.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.