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Labour’s fight to capitalise on Boris Johnson’s scandals

Widely written off for the past two years as a grey man in a blue suit, Keir Starmer is suddenly centre stage. If the opinion polls are to be believed, his opposition Labour party could even win a narrow victory if a general election were held tomorrow in the UK.

Starmer’s Labour is — for now — the beneficiary of growing public anger at Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, which is dogged by an economic “cost of living” crisis and a seemingly endless succession of revelations about sleaze and scandal.

Having been pummelled at the previous general election in 2019, when the party suffered its worst result since 1935, Labour is now recording national poll leads ranging from 5-10 points. Various polls suggest Starmer is now perceived more highly than Prime Minister Johnson on multiple attributes, such as being “in touch” with voters.

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“It doesn’t sound totally preposterous that Labour could be in government some time quite soon,” says shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves.

Yet on the streets of Erdington, a West Midlands seat which Labour is defending in a by-election on March 3, it is hard to detect much enthusiasm for Starmer, the north London MP who has led the party since its historic defeat.

Sabina Biro, a 43-year-old masters student, looks puzzled when asked for her thoughts about the Labour leader: “I don’t know him as much as Boris,” she muses. Sonia Murray, a 50-year-old floating voter, says: “I don’t like Keir Starmer to be fair. I don’t like the look of him, he just looks disingenuous. But I actually like Boris, he has a way of making you feel something.”

For the last two months, British political life has been consumed by the question of whether Johnson can survive in office — especially as the police investigate if he and his staff broke any laws by holding social gatherings during lockdown. Every new revelation in the “partygate” scandal has increased the chances that there will be a challenge from other MPs to his leadership of the Conservative party.

But the other, less discussed question is whether the Labour party is in a position to take advantage of the disarray in the Johnson government.

Starmer’s allies believe Labour now has the opportunity to present itself as a legitimate party of government — one rooted in the centre-left tradition of Tony Blair, the last leader to win a general election. Having been on the periphery of the political conversation during the pandemic, Labour has an opening to make its case.

Tracey Hiett, who works at a greengrocer’s market in Erdington, says she has little faith in the leadership of either Boris Johnson or Keir Starmer
Tracey Hiett, who works at a greengrocer’s market in Erdington, says she has little faith in the leadership of either Boris Johnson or Keir Starmer © Andrew Fox/FT

Keir Starmer visits a hairdressers in Erdington. His Labour party will defend the parliamentary seat in a by-election on March 3
Keir Starmer visits a hairdressers in Erdington. His Labour party will defend the parliamentary seat in a by-election on March 3 © Getty Images

But it is also possible that the current polls merely reflect a widespread desire to punish Johnson after the partygate scandal, rather than a shift to Labour. If so, the party may be enjoying a time-limited sugar rush.

Blair himself described Starmer this month as “a work in progress” rather than the finished article. Even some of Starmer’s closest allies admit the general public are still unsure about the opposition leader and what — if anything — he stands for.

“There is a chance that Labour’s current lead is a bit of a flash in the pan,” says Chris Hopkins, director of political research at Savanta ComRes, a polling company.

“Yes Starmer is ahead of Johnson on many factors but this is all about support falling away from Boris rather than Keir moving ahead actively. People have just gone off the prime minister.”

Starmer unvarnished

Keir Rodney Starmer entered politics late. A distinguished lawyer, he was director of public prosecutions before entering parliament in 2015 — just before Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran politician from Labour’s “hard left”, became party leader.

Unlike many other moderate figures in the party, Starmer subsequently agreed to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet with the Brexit portfolio, where he presided over Labour’s backing for a second referendum on leaving the EU.

When Corbyn then quit after the 2019 defeat, Starmer cannily posed as a unifying figure who would keep much of his predecessor’s radical economic agenda.

However, within months of becoming leader, Starmer made clear that his political lodestar was instead Corbyn’s nemesis: the ultra-centrist Blair, who led the party to three election wins in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

The rhetoric he uses is often patriotic, warm towards business and tough on crime, echoing Blair’s “New Labour” project from the early 1990s.

The aim is to win back blue-collar Leave-supporting voters who switched to the Tory party in the 2019 election: “It’s a familiar battleground, working class social class C1 and C2, hairdressers and builders who we lost three years ago,” says one Labour aide.

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But questions still remain about Starmer’s vision and whether he can energise the public enough to win a general election — which must take place within 5 years of the last one, by 2024.

The lack of clarity partly reflects the fact that he became leader in the teeth of the pandemic, where the government inevitably dominated coverage of politics.

“The pandemic was very difficult for Keir because it was such a huge event and he was inevitably a bit player and struggling for air time,” says Peter Mandelson, a key Blair ally and one of the architects of the New Labour project. “Now he is coming into his own and has found his voice . . . we are seeing more of ‘Starmer unvarnished’.”

It has also been difficult for Starmer to win a personality contest with Johnson, who — until recently — has enjoyed an unusual celebrity status in Britain.

Johnson has spent almost his entire adult life in elected office and yet it is often Starmer, a Westminster neophyte, who comes across like a cautious career politician.

Yet Starmer’s personal approval ratings have risen steadily since the autumn of 2021, a period which has also seen Johnson’s own ratings fall, largely thanks to a series of self-inflicted blows including partygate and scandals over parliamentary sleaze.

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“The prime minister has lost his moral authority,” Starmer tells the FT.

An Ipsos Mori poll this month found that the public considered Starmer honest, a capable leader and in touch with ordinary people compared with Johnson — albeit while trailing the prime minister by 24 points on the question of who has the most “personality”.

Starmer’s team hopes that his lack of star quality will not matter in the final reckoning with Johnson. They believe the public will be yearning for an “anti-Johnson” alternative after years in which people initially embraced the prime minister’s chaotic style of leadership and later appeared to turn against it.

“When focus groups watch footage of Keir they like what they see, they like the kind of guy he is, some watch him with a sense of relief,” says one ally. “But obviously the challenge is getting him out there in front of everyone.”

New New Labour

Starmer often compares the scale of the challenge in front of him to climbing a mountain, telling allies: “We’re trying to do Neil Kinnock [who as leader reformed Labour in the 80s] and Tony Blair [who got the party back into power in the 90s] in one run”.

Labour won elections by appealing to both the working class and left-leaning middle classes, but has lost its appeal to significant chunks of that electorate in recent years. It lost 40 of its 41 seats in Scotland in 2015 amid a surge in Scottish nationalism. It then shed about 50 so-called “red wall” seats, former Labour strongholds in Leave-voting parts of northern England and the Midlands in 2019. The core of its support is now younger, metropolitan graduates in urban areas of England and Wales.

Keir Starmer addresses parliament. The Labour leader’s rhetoric he uses is often patriotic, warm towards business and tough on crime
Keir Starmer addresses parliament. The Labour leader’s rhetoric he uses is often patriotic, warm towards business and tough on crime © Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament

As a result of its 2019 trouncing, Labour would need to gain some 125 seats even to have a majority of just one in the House of Commons. Many Labour MPs are phlegmatic that their best chance of power may lie in a formal or informal coalition with the Scottish National party, which currently has 45 MPs, or the Liberal Democrats with 13.

Already there are stirrings of an unpublicised pact between Labour and the Lib Dems, with each party taking a back seat in recent by-elections where the other has a chance.

Starmer’s team believes Labour could easily work with the Lib Dems, although it sees “fundamental differences” with the SNP given the latter’s determination to break up the UK.

But the Labour leadership is unlikely to talk openly about a future pact. In 2015 the Tories successfully whipped up fears of a potential Labour-SNP pact to win the support of some English voters.

Starmer insists he is not “following a Blair playbook” but the evidence would suggest otherwise. He has waged war with the “Corbynista” far-left wing of the party, overseeing Corbyn’s expulsion from the party, changing the rule book to the advantage of the moderate wing and taking a zero-tolerance stance to anti-Semitism allegations which dogged the previous leadership.

Meanwhile, Starmer has sought to eliminate some of Labour’s traditional electoral weaknesses by promising to be fiscally disciplined, tough on crime and strong on national security.

He is unashamedly pro-business, in contrast to his predecessor. “Only when business thrives can our economy thrive, and only when our economy thrives can we build the future we all want for our children,” he says. Starmer’s criticism of Britain’s “high tax, low growth” economy echoes the same slogan used by the CBI employers’ federation.

Masters student Sabina Biro says: ‘I don’t like Keir Starmer to be fair. I don’t like the look of him, he just looks disingenuous’ © Andrew Fox/FT

People shop in Erdington, where people seem less concerned about Boris Johnson’s travails with ‘partygate’ and more worried about local issues © Andrew Fox/FT

Starmer believes that Johnson has abandoned the Conservatives’ traditional reputation as the party of low taxes: “The idea that they are the low tax party doesn’t work for them now. He’s blown up the biggest electoral weapon they have,” he has told friends.

The issue of Brexit — which lost Labour scores of seats in 2019 — has been cauterised with a pledge not to overturn Britain’s departure from the EU. “Everyone knows I voted to Remain. But we lost that,” he says.

Starmer has offered uncompromising support for Nato in recent weeks — amid rising tensions in Ukraine — in stark contrast to Corbyn, a key figure in the Stop The War Coalition that views Nato, and not Russia, as an imperialist aggressor.

Now Starmer’s team describe 2022 as the year in which he will take advantage of Johnson’s plight and use a renewed media focus on Labour to set out his own stall for an alternative centre-left government.

When the Labour leader is challenged on what he would do in Downing Street, he likes to point to several existing policies.

A Starmer government would borrow £28bn a year for a Green Deal — including £6bn a year for home insulation — and would roll out a raft of pro-worker policies such as a £10 minimum wage and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour would also seek a better deal with the EU, while ruling out the return of free movement of people — one of the root causes of the 2016 Brexit vote.

It is not clear, however, that those policies have seeped into the public consciousness, as even some of Starmer’s allies admit. Labour still lacks a snappy message or slogan.

Former Labour prime ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, who has described Keir Starmer’s leadership as ‘a work in progress’
Former Labour prime ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, who has described Keir Starmer’s leadership as ‘a work in progress’ © Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard/Shutterstock

“Having exposed the Tories’ flaws he is now moving to the next stage, preparing Labour for governing,” says Mandelson. “They have some policies but they are a long way off weaving them together into a single story and electoral offer . . . he needs to extend his focus and really bottom out Labour’s diagnosis of the country’s challenges and what we are going to do for the British people.”

One member of the shadow cabinet expects Labour to maintain a poll lead through the summer, giving Starmer a clear platform to set out his stall at the party conference in Liverpool in September.

“The big challenge for Labour right now is vision, and answering the question of ‘what would the country look like under these guys?’” he says. “That is what he has got to nail over the next six or seven months. That is the big challenge. If he doesn’t do that he won’t win an election.”

What it would take to win

Optimistic MPs reckon the current poll lead could lead to a virtuous cycle where Labour is taken more seriously by pundits and therefore wins more airtime for its vision. Shadow ministers say they have found it easier to meet business leaders and ambassadors since the polls started to turn over the winter.

Yet polls can be fickle. Johnson’s popularity took a significant knock in May 2020 after another lockdown scandal involving a former key aide, Dominic Cummings, only for his ratings to pick up again within a few months. The prime minister hopes that partygate will increasingly seem trivial against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis.

Hopkins, the pollster from Savanta ComRes, says there is a big cohort of former Tory voters who have not gone across to Labour but are instead “undecided” in the wake of recent Johnson scandals.

Keir Starmer with shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, who says ‘it doesn’t sound totally preposterous that Labour could be in government some time quite soon’
Keir Starmer with shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, who says ‘it doesn’t sound totally preposterous that Labour could be in government some time quite soon’ © Christopher Furlong/Getty

“Those voters are going to be far easier for the Conservatives to win back than if they were now saying they were going to vote for a different party,” he says. “That means the lead is artificial.”

One shadow cabinet member says Starmer is increasingly respected by female voters but admits many men still have the “misconception” that he is “weak”.

Even if memories of Johnson’s recent scandals start to recede, Labour could — in theory — take advantage of the “cost of living crisis” that has engulfed Britain, with energy bills expected to surge to a record high in April just as national insurance rates increase to help pay for health and social care.

“The cost of living is rising, prices are up, taxes are up, energy bills are up . . . and meanwhile real wages are stagnant or falling,” says Starmer. “Yet we’ve got a government that is too preoccupied to act.”

Labour is trying to drum home the message that the Tories are the party of “high tax and low growth” after years of anaemic gross domestic product rises. It also came up with its own package of relief for energy bills a month before the government followed suit.

“Do we seem too serious? It’s possible,” says one senior Labour MP. “But we are in the part of the cycle where events are very serious, with Ukraine and the cost of living crisis, and that actively plays to our strength.”

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Kier Starmer served in the hard leftwinger’s shadow  cabinet before jettisoning his policies when he took over the party leadership
Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Keir Starmer served in the hard left winger’s shadow cabinet before jettisoning his policies when he took over the party leadership © Darren Staples/Bloomberg

Yet public anger about bills going up will not necessarily waft Starmer into Number 10. “When we do focus groups on the cost of living, no one is convinced that the Tories have got the answers,” says Hopkins. “But they are not convinced that Labour has the answers either.”

In Erdington, with just two weeks to go before polling day, people seem less concerned about partygate and more worried about local issues such as the ailing high street, homelessness and crime.

Anything other than a victory for Labour would be disastrous in a seat previously represented by Jack Dromey, a respected union veteran who died in January. He held it with a majority of 3,601.

Residents in the Birmingham suburb expect Labour to retain the seat, but voice little excitement about the leadership of Starmer, saying they feel ignored by all political leaders in Westminster.

Tracey Hiett, who works at the local greengrocer’s market, says she has little faith in the leadership of either Johnson or Starmer. “I think whatever we say or do no one listens to working class people here,” says the 46-year-old.

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