DAN HODGES: It’s not being boring that is Keir Starmer’s big problem…it’s that nobody can trust a single thing he says
Labour MPs are losing patience with Keir Starmer. ‘There’s talk of having a whip-round for Durham police,’ one Shadow Minister joked. ‘We’re going to send them a bung to guarantee they fine him.’
A second Shadow Minister wasn’t quite so light-hearted. ‘The Shadow Cabinet all hate him,’ they said bluntly.
Another Shadow Cabinet veteran was similarly direct. ‘The consensus is he’s a plank of wood. If he doesn’t deliver by conference, there’ll be a push to get rid of him.’
Labour MPs are said to be losing patience with Keir Starmer (pictured). One Shadow Minister even joked that ‘there’s talk of having a whip-round for Durham police’ to guarantee they fine him
The Westminster pendulum is again oscillating wildly. A week ago it was Boris facing defenestration at the hands of his party. But now the tables have turned. Despite the Prime Minister’s difficulties, Labour cannot break open a double-digit poll lead.
Focus groups show Keir Starmer failing to cut through. And doubts among his top team resurfaced after a survey for the liberal-leaning Observer found most still prefer Boris for PM.
‘Stop calling me boring,’ Starmer angrily demanded at a meeting of his Shadow Cabinet last Tuesday.
Which would be fine – though a touch petulant – if being tedious really was his main issue. It isn’t. The fundamental difficulty is that over the past few months Starmer has opted to place honesty and probity at the heart of his offer to the electorate.
And no one – not allies, not enemies, not the British people who he’s depending on to deliver him the keys to Downing Street – can rely on a single political word that passes his lips.
Last week at Prime Minister’s Questions, Starmer engaged in a highly transparent and excruciating attempt to demonstrate he’s actually just one of the guys. He made a couple of off-colour quips about Love Island, threw in some comic references to Star Wars, and branded Boris Jabba the Hutt.
A week ago it was Boris Johnson facing defenestration at the hands of his party. But now the tables have turned to Kier Starmer. Doubts among his top team resurfaced after a survey for the liberal-leaning Observer found most still prefer Boris for PM
This from the man who’d said in an interview just a couple of days before: ‘Governing is a serious business. It requires focus, dedication, integrity, and the highest standards. At times like this, people are less interested in the Prime Minister’s jokes and more interested in what he’s doing to help them pay their bills.’
But the most telling moment came when he opted to taunt Boris with a Tory rebels briefing document. ‘It is a document circulated by his backbenchers, in which they call him the “Conservative Corbyn”,’ Starmer gleefully goaded. ‘Prime Minister, I don’t think that was intended as a compliment.’
Nope. But who exactly is this Corbyn fella? The mystery man who St Keir – high priest of integrity and consistency – is suddenly using as a cudgel to batter our hapless PM?
Surely not the same Corbyn Starmer himself served under as Shadow Europe Minister?
The same Corbyn who Starmer spent years trying to get elected Prime Minister?
The same Corbyn whose political programme Starmer embraced during the Labour leadership campaign, forming the foundation of his ‘10 Pledges’?
The same Corbyn Starmer hailed at the start of that campaign as ‘a friend’ he ‘respects’?
DAN HODGES: ‘The reality is Keir Starmer was happy to pose as Jeremy Corbyn’s friend. He was happy to serve under him. He was happy to campaign for him, and endorse major parts of his agenda. For as long as it was politically useful. Then when it wasn’t, he junked it’
In the days following the PMQs jibe, the former Labour leader’s allies swung into action. Ex-Unite leader Len McCluskey raged: ‘It seems to me that Keir, who wanted unity to be his most important thing, has failed miserably in that. We have a divided party.’ Leading Corbynite commentator Ash Sarkar tweeted: ‘I would rather boil my own head than vote Labour with this leadership.’
Much of this anger is a rehash of the traditional ‘betrayal’ storyline, so beloved of the Labour Left. But there’s one problem. On this occasion, the accusation of treachery is an accurate one.
The reality is Keir Starmer was happy to pose as Jeremy Corbyn’s friend. He was happy to serve under him. He was happy to campaign for him, and endorse major parts of his agenda. For as long as it was politically useful. Then when it wasn’t, he junked it.
All of which begs the question – just who is Keir Starmer going to betray next?
Some of his cheerleaders claim the answer is obvious: he’ll continue to turn his back on the Left of his party, and embark on a subtle but inexorable drift to the centre.
But it’s not that clear-cut. Not least because most Labour insiders I speak to insist Starmer’s instinctively more Left-wing than people appreciate. Last week I dug out the slick video he made for the launch of his leadership campaign. It featured people who had known him for decades giving an insight into the ‘real’ Keir Starmer.
‘Keir defended the print workers at Wapping,’ one recalled. ‘He was in the crowd that night when police on horseback charged.’ The screen cuts to footage of the Trafalgar Square poll tax riot. ‘He gave free legal advice to the poll tax protesters,’ a friend explains.
But let’s say Starmer is prepared to abandon his old comrades in his pursuit of power. How does that align with his claim ‘I stand for honour and integrity, and the belief that politics is a force for good, and we shouldn’t all be dragged down by this cynical belief that all politicians are the same’?
Allies say this simply shows his politically pragmatism. That he’s abiding by the rule you first pander to your base, then – when secure – the electorate. Yet that represents a misreading of political history.
Thatcher was more radically Right-wing in government than in opposition. Tony Blair pledged to govern as New Labour, and did so. Boris vowed to bulldoze Brexit’s opponents, and on that – if little else – was as good as his word.
‘The Corbynites are right. They weren’t able to trust St Keir. And until he comes clean about whose side he’s really on, neither can anyone else.’ PICTURED: Jeremy Corbyn
But who can actually trust Keir Starmer? Whose side is he really on? During this week’s rail strikes, is it the unions who can depend on his support, or commuters?
When it comes to the Rwanda deportations, is he on the side of the migrants and their liberal defenders, or those who want firm action to stop the Channel crossings?
Does he stand with women who wish to protect their safe spaces, or the transgender community who wish to access them?
At the moment Keir Starmer can’t answer any of these questions.
Which is supremely ironic – some might say laughably hypocritical – given the nature of the attacks he’s launched on Boris over the past few months.
On last week’s Question Time, former Tory Minister Rory Stewart delivered what many saw as a devastating critique of the Prime Minister. ‘He lurches sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, but always in the direction of his own self-interest,’ he said.
But exactly the same charge can be levelled at Keir Starmer. If he thinks dumping Corbynism is what’s best for his party, and ultimately the country, fine.
Then he should stand up clearly and say so. He should be open and transparent about how and why Labour lost its way. And he should have the courage and maturity to explain where he intends to lead it next.
Above all, that he should set out his political road-map with honesty and conviction. Not nods and winks and snide asides at Prime Minister’s Questions.
The Corbynites are right. They weren’t able to trust St Keir. And until he comes clean about whose side he’s really on, neither can anyone else.
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