Boris Johnson’s greatest strength as a politician is that he isn’t afraid to U-turn: his greatest weakness is that he has to U-turn so often. Whether you are steering the ship of state or driving a car, it’s better to change course than to carry on and hit the wall. But if you were a passenger in a vehicle that kept U-turning, you’d conclude fairly quickly that the problem was that the driver didn’t have a clue where he was going.
And so it is with Johnson’s government, U-turns so frequent that Downing Street could double as a perpetual motion engine. The row over this year’s exam results is a case in point: the central problem, which provoked so much opposition and forced the government to change approach, was that because there were no exams this year the results had been invented by a computer, which could hand out roughly the “right” number of passes but not to the “right” people. The row would have been predictable to anyone versed in the fine detail of what the exams watchdog had been asked to do – it’s just that the secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson, was not versed in the detail, fine or otherwise.
The same holds true for last week’s other U-turn: extending the ban on evictions in the private rented sector in England and Wales. Measures were already in place to do this in Scotland and Northern Ireland and, given that the social distancing measures that forced the evictions ban to be brought in are still in place, it is far from clear why Downing Street only realised the problem existed on Friday – or why it has extended the ban only until the middle of September. These arenot crises caused by the difficulties of the pandemic but by the difficulties that the government has in getting its arms around the problem.
Yet the Conservatives still have an opinion poll lead. Some Tory MPs believe the poll lead is simply a lagging indicator. One waspish parliamentarian compares the party’s poll rating to a patient, told by their doctor that they are a terminal case, who replies: “But I feel fine.” The reality is that, whatever a superficial reading of the polls might suggest, the position of the Conservative party is far from fine and that the lingering doubts over the government’s competence will crystallise into a Labour lead sooner rather than later.
That, broadly, characterises the view at the top of the Labour party. They believe they have done the important things. In the spring, most people couldn’t pick Keir Starmer out of a line-up and those who did consistently preferred Boris Johnson to him. As summer nears its end, most people have heard of the Labour leader and most of them like him. He is ahead or level with Johnson when people are asked to pick a preferred prime minister. For the first time in more than a decade, Labour has a leader more popular than the party and no leader of the opposition has been as popular since Tony Blair. Starmer has made himself an attractive proposition and successfully set himself up to fight the contest he wants to fight: between a competent and steady Labour leader and an incompetent and uncertain Conservative prime minister. Now, events will take care of the rest.
The reply among Starmer’s critics and doubters is: well, they haven’t yet. The blundering of the government has not translated into an opinion poll lead for Labour and it is wishful thinking to believe that it will do so in the autumn or new year.
It is simplistic to see the row as solely one between the party’s left and right flanks. John McDonnell, the sharpest strategic mind on the Labour left, has praised Starmer’s approach. McDonnell believes that the moment Labour lost the 2019 election came in March 2018, when Jeremy Corbyn failed to decisively and rapidly back Theresa May’s actions against Russia following the poisoning of the Skripals. During a crisis, voters expect the opposition to rally behind the government, not to oppose it. As far as the reaction to the pandemic is concerned, Starmer is succeeding where Corbyn failed. McDonnell has other objections and concerns about the direction of Starmer’s Labour party, but his handling of the coronavirus isn’t one of them. But Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former spin chief, has complained that Starmer isn’t drawing enough dividing lines between Labour and the Conservatives. As a result, plenty of voters think the Tories have bungled the crisis; not enough believe that Labour would do better.
Who’s right? The difficult truth is that they both are. When Lisa Nandy, then Starmer’s rival for the leadership, sharply criticised the government at the start of the pandemic, she was heavily criticised and a more pugnacious approach at the beginning would, almost certainly, have introduced Starmer to voters in the worst possible way. McDonnell is surely right to believe that, just as after the Salisbury poisoning, voters are not looking for a critical leader of the opposition but a constructive one.
The trouble for Starmer is that his position is a strong but strategically constrained one. The reality is that he is not a constructive opposition leader, because no one ever is. When David Cameron pledged to help Blair pass school reform into law, he didn’t do it because he wanted Blair to continue in office and for schools to improve, but because he wanted to steal the mantle of education reform from Labour for himself. Starmer doesn’t want to help Johnson learn on the job – he wants to deprive him of it. The trouble is, Starmer’s constructive pose makes it difficult for him to attack the government directly and frequently without appearing to be opportunistic. And because, as a result, Labour isn’t setting out the broad outlines of how it would do things differently, voters are not yet concluding that it would.
So Starmer’s challenge is: how do you go from a position of constructive opposition to landing blows on the government without damaging yourself? On the football pitch, Starmer, an Arsenal fan, is a combative midfielder, involved in every aspect of the play. But his role for Labour is more akin to a big centre forward, who holds the ball up and brings other attacking players into the mix. The problem for Labour is that at present its other attacking players aren’t making the runs.
The shadow cabinet is largely anonymous, partly because, for most them, their opposite numbers have not much to do outside the pandemic, leaving them with little to say. But they are also inexperienced. A consequence of Labour’s civil wars is that Starmer had a choice between turning to people who had held junior ministerial office under Blair and Gordon Brown or people who had held no office at all. What they have in common is that neither group has much in the way of experience of opposition. That’s the biggest difference between Starmer, Blair and Cameron. The latter two had shadow cabinets packed with politicians who had a decade of life at the top of the opposition under their belts. Most of Starmer’s top team were first elected in 2015 and even those from beforehand have little experience of shadow cabinet life. Small wonder that the handful of exceptions to that – David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary and Ed Miliband, the shadow business secretary – are the busiest and most visible opposition politicians.
That won’t worry Starmer too much. The most important and neglected part of his political style is that he is the first party leader to have run a big corporate organisation, in his case, the Crown Prosecution Service. One of the things he is proud of is his success in increasing diversity at every level of the CPS, an approach that took years, not months.
Turning his relatively callow opposition team into the sharp-elbowed operators he needs them to be is, similarly, a long-term project. Labour’s leader won’t care if, at this stage of the game, his shadow ministers are not taking advantage of the space he creates for them, provided they start to score goals by the end of the parliament. But the longer they take to grow into the role, the more nervous restive parts of the Labour party may be and the party’s big centre forward might find that he is facing calls for his substitution.
• Stephen Bush is the political editor of the New Statesman