With personal approval polling to rival mid-nineties Blair, it is easy to get excited about Keir Starmer’s prospects of becoming the next Prime Minister. But, in politics, excitement is often just another word for distraction. The path to power for Starmer is one ridden with pot holes and pratfalls, all designed to trip up even the smoothest of opposition leaders. And the truth is that the most likely next Prime Minister is not the leader of the Labour Party – whose chances of ending up in Number 10, at some point, are probably hovering around the 30% mark at the moment. Starmer needs to fight – and win – a General Election in order to ascend to the highest office. For Tory MPs who aspire to power, the route is considerably easier. They just need to get rid of Boris and convince their colleagues and membership to vote them in.
Why are we talking about succession just six months in to a new government with a majority of eighty? Well, because that government is floundering. On balance, Boris probably survives – let’s say that his chances of making it to the next election stand at around 70%. But a circa 30% chance of falling – again, just six months in from a whopping win – is significant. The truth is that this crisis would have tested any government. But for this government it has been a calamity. This is partly because of personality. But it is also because of politics.
Personality first. Boris Johnson is a tribune for boosterism. He is at his best hanging from a zip wire waving a Union Jack and celebrating good news. That is who he is. He is less good – much less good – at managing dilemmas and imparting difficult or unhappy news. With the exception of his sombre and moving address upon his discharge from hospital, Johnson has been unconvincing and uninspired on the (rare) occasions that he has spoken to the country. He is uncomfortable with the position that he holds and is not across the detail of his government. That latter point was evidenced this week by his claim not to have even heard about the footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign on feeding low income children for the two days that it was front page news. Last month he told the Liaison Committee that he didn’t know basic details of how this country’s immigration system works. He wants to be the Chairman of the Board. But in a time of crisis you need a Chief Executive. Not an absentee boss and an army of competing Chiefs-of-Staff.
And then there is the politics. There are talented people in this Cabinet but their talent is not the reason that they are in the Cabinet. Every Secretary of State, every Minister, is there because either they believed in a No Deal Brexit (for that is de facto what we are getting) or because they could be counted upon to swallow their feelings. Fine. In good times that would make for a mediocre government. In bad times – and these surely are bad times – this is a disaster. We are not presently governed by the best and the brightest that the country – or, even, the Conservative Party – has to offer. We are governed by the boasters and the brigands instead.
So, we have a weak government that – despite its majority – is wavering and dithering and lacks direction in the worst economic crisis since 1939. That is why in Westminster there are whispers about its future. Or, rather, about the future of the Prime Minister. Asquith was replaced by Lloyd George after the disaster of the Somme, two years into World War One. Neville Chamberlain got the chop when it was clear he had fluffed the run up to, and beginning of, World War Two.
Johnson probably survives but it is not nailed on that he will follow in the footsteps of his idol Churchill rather than his ignominious predecessor. Who, then, succeeds?
Well, not Keir. Not straight away anyway – elections and all that. So someone from inside the ranks. One of the few Cabinet Ministers to have actually shone in this crisis. Someone whose personality is serious and thoughtful rather than brash and boisterous. Someone whose politics is pro-Brexit but nuanced and lacking in ideological ferocity. Someone who looks a lot like Rishi Sunak. It is worth recalling again that, after the disaster of the Somme, Asquith was replaced by his own Chancellor, Lloyd George.
Of course his path is not smooth either. The economy is tanking and he is in charge of it. Millions of jobs are on the line. The headbangers detect a whiff of Blairishness beneath the Brexit carapace. And yet… should the crown slip, who else is there?
So yes, well done and best of British to Sir Keir. But the smart money in the question of who replaces Boris Johnson is following Sunak, not Starmer.