William Hague likes to tell a story about when he was the leader of the Conservative Party. He had popped in to Number 10 for a briefing from the PM on some issue or other that was felt to be non-political enough, and important enough, that the Leader of the Opposition deserved or needed to know about it. Whilst in with Blair, Hague mused aloud about which of the two had the tougher job. “Oh, you do” said Blair, quick as a flash. The lesson? Being the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is really, really hard. A lot of politicians believe that they should be king – that they have the skills or the values or the sheer ambition. They wield the knife to land the throne and then find – often – that the throne in question is both uncomfortable and unforgiving. But this week, Keir Starmer demonstrated that he actually might be quite well suited to the office that he has won.
The truth is, fate has dealt Starmer a cruel hand. For two reasons. One, COVID-19 and our national response to the pandemic both drowns out most of what he might want to say and also creates a collective circling of the wagons which favours the incumbent government. Two, his party is still stuck in a forever war with itself that has spilled over from the previous regime and has not yet abated.
Still, politics is about making the most of what you’ve got and, on that measure, Starmer has had a strong start despite the inauspicious circumstances. His decision to personally rise above the day-to-day work of the opposition in the age of coronavirus (challenging the Government on PPE, care homes and the like) is a smart one. That important work continues with able frontbenchers like Liz Kendall, John Ashworth and new Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds leading the charge and taking chunks out of the Government without making Starmer himself look unsupportive of our national efforts to resolve the crisis. Instead, he has focussed on the big, strategic question of what an exit strategy will look like and when the Government will develop (even if not, yet deploy) one.
This is smart for a number of reasons. For a start, even the most ‘all in it together, they’re doing their best’ of us want to know at the very least how the Government will begin to assess whether we are allowed to go back to normal life. One of the most confounding and difficult aspects of this particular crisis is the lack of a definable timetable. Human beings struggle with elasticity. So Keir is working with the grain of our psychology and our desires when he demands answers on this. Further, this is an opposition leader doing the job of opposition – which is not about simply denouncing the Government but also about identifying where there are cracks within the Government and exploiting those for your own political advantage and the advance of your party’s values. Many Tory MPs are deeply concerned that their Government has backed itself into a corner from which it has no plan, whatsoever, for escape. Some Ministers are already questioning the Health Secretary’s judgement in pushing for a rolling, national lockdown rather than something more targeted. And with Johnson still out of the picture, Ministers are free to imagine what he would want to happen rather than to hear his instructions. It should come as no surprise that if you speak to any given Tory MP they are very confident that what the Prime Minister thinks is exactly what they happen to think themselves. This is a big shift in the Labour’s Party’s competence as an operation. Not just an improvement on Corbyn but also on Miliband. Starmer is the first opposition leader in a decade to get in front of the Prime Minister they shadow – yes there are risks involved, see Nadine Dorries attacking him in terms usually reserved for wartime traitors, but the very fact that he is able to make these calculations marks him out as a man of genuine political talent.
So Starmer’s strategy is a sound one. But Starmer is not in charge of whether anything will then come of it. Being Leader of the Opposition is hard; it is a bit like being Benjamin Franklin, wandering through the storm with your kite and hoping that at some point lightning will strike. But he has chosen his position wisely. Because aside from the tragic roll call of the dead each day, our politics for the foreseeable future will be remorselessly dominated by one question and one question alone – when? When will we be back at work? When will we see our parents once more? When will we be able to book an Ocado without too much fuss? When will we meet again?
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