With Downing Street Failing to Land an Attack, Keir Has a Unique Chance to Define Himself

Greg Collins discusses Keir Starmer's leadership style.

Empty partisan jibes; bluster and an aversion to question answering have long been unfortunate features of Prime Minister’s Questions, but Boris Johnson continually seems to excel above and beyond in all three. Our Prime Minister does give his common’s contributions a unique approach to the English language that only an Oxford Classicist and former journalist could muster. But with a socially distanced chamber free of the jeering hordes behind him, his glibness quickly runs hollow. As Labour leader Keir Starmer has been both contained and measured in his style with a series of Common’s victories now under his belt against the Prime Minister. Downing Street is appearing outwardly flustered by this with a series of attempted attack lines failing to stick to the Opposition leader. In the absence of being defined by others, Keir Starmer has the unique opportunity of the space to try and define his leadership himself.

Working alongside their allies in the media the Conservatives have often used their attack lines to help construct a Labour leader’s identity. In recent years we saw how a variety of Tory attacks helped to cement Jeremy Corbyn’s image as a hard left leader who couldn’t be trusted on either the economy or national security. One might particularly remember Corbyn being skewered so publically on these issues by Michael Gove during the no confidence debate. During the coalition years David Cameron was able to pin Ed Milliband down as both being one of those directly responsible for crashing the economy and as a red union puppet that preached hypocritically about injustice in his two kitchens. They even managed to land punches on Prime Minister Gordon Brown for being both indecisive about a potential election and out of touch with the public in the aftermath of the financial crash.

Dominic Cumming’s initial description of Starmer being a remainer lawyer gives an indication of their initial impression of the new Opposition Leader. They firstly tried to characterise him, as an overly rehearsed lawyerly type who moves endlessly from brief to brief, something that seemed only to emphasise his preparedness is the antithesis of the Prime Minister’s bumbling demeanour and lack of attention to detail. They next moved onto calling him Captain Hindsight over his interventions around the pandemic. This is potentially not the best course of action if you are running a government that is undertaking an ever-increasing number of U-turns on your own policy positions. The lowest point undoubtedly came when they tried to suggest he was some sort of IRA sympathiser due to his being a member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. In his forthright rebuttal he noted that in his previous role as Director of Public Prosecutions he actually acted to bring IRA terrorists to justice in his work, something that shut down the attack line pretty swiftly.

As Downing Street struggle to find an attack line that sufficiently sticks to him, Starmer has a unique opportunity for an Opposition Leader in that he has the space to be able to tell his own story and establish his own political identity. The early impression is that the public are starting to see Keir as a competent alternative with a forensic approach to detail, this is a strong start This alone however won’t win Labour the next election and Starmer will have to further work to describe who he is and what he envisions for the country. With the government having such a substantial commons majority there is a lot of time for this narrative to be developed.

Greg Collins is a Labour activist from Cambridge who previously worked for a Parliamentary Monitoring Service and in the office of a Member of the European Parliament. He enjoys writing about Labour politics and parliamentary reform in a personal capacity.

He tweets at @GregCollins8.

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