We take another look at Starmer's job performance, and put the question to you: how do you rate Starmer's performance? Vote in our poll below.
The new Labour leader appears head and shoulders above his predecessor, but how is Starmer comparing against the powers of the Prime Minister?
It has now been two months since Keir Starmer won the Labour leadership election, quashing his opponents on a platform promising both unity and professionalism, qualities both longed for during the Corbyn years. His new shadow cabinet, composed of Labour MPs across the party-political spectrum, has seemingly delivered on these promises, and the Labour party is looking more and more like an effective opposition instead of a student protest group. Even visually there has been a great deal of ironing and polishing about the party’s appearance.
Liberal and conservative commentators alike have noted this, lauding Starmer with much the same praise. One characteristic in particular, however, continually raising its now weary head: ‘forensic’. In the pantomime of British parliamentary politics, Starmer plays the role of the surgeon, choosing his instruments carefully and providing great attention to detail. Yet this depiction of him as the forensic surgeon may lend itself to as much criticism as it does praise. In comparison to the Prime Minister, Starmer’s surgical image drips with numbing sterility.
The personalities of the PM and the Labour leader could not be more different. Starmer is reserved, uncharismatic and precise, whereas Johnson is quite literally the opposite. He is effectively the ‘ying’ to Starmer’s ‘yang’, his ability as a charismatic communicator being his greatest political asset, yet detail is clearly not his forte. The fact the Prime Minister is so often referred to as ‘Boris’ rather than ‘Johnson’ is further testament to his relatable and attractive personality. This is something Starmer appears unable to overcome, yet it is precisely Johnson’s reliance on such performance and bluster that highlights the merits of Starmer’s approach.
Starmer’s performance during his first few PMQs were a PR nightmare for the Conservatives, yet as more and more MPs begin to fill the back benches, the more the tide is turning in Johnson’s favour. Until last month, the government had been suffering at the hands of a hybrid parliament, MPs could ask questions from the safety of their homes and need not have attended unless completely necessary. This was clearly a gift to the ex-barrister, who, standing in his surgical apron and gloves, was able to land questions on Johnson that were made all the more deadly by the silence of the room echoing their impact. With the new decision to return MPs to Parliament, the surgeon may find his instruments ineffective and blunt.
This was highlighted by the dynamics of this week’s PMQs. In scrutinising the government, Starmer quoted the PM’s chair of the track and trace system, Dido Harding, who stated that “this element will not be ready until the end of June”. Starmer then queried whether the Prime Minsiter was aware of this at the time. In rebuttal, Johnson then accused him of “casting aspersions” on the hardworking people of this country, with much finger wagging and table thumping to boot, his voice reaching ever higher decibels all the while. And on it went. ‘Forensic’ questions from Starmer, and convincing rhetorical power from Johnson. If Starmer’s operations are to have future success, he needs to be able to spontaneously dissect Johnson's responses, rather than push on with his next question.
A change of tack?
Starmer needs to be able to think on his feet even more now given his change in narrative. In his recent interview with the Guardian, Starmer stated his new intentions: “I am putting the Prime Minister on notice that he has got to get a grip and restore public confidence in the government’s handling of the epidemic”. This appears to be the beginning of an offensive against Johnson, citing the Cummings affair, the death rate, and the concerns of scientists and experts as symptoms of a fall in trust.
Yet here Starmer should be wary. The Conservatives are still largely in command of the language of responsibility and duty, given their delivering on Brexit. Starmer will therefore be hard pressed to maintain this moral argument against the Prime Minster unless Johnson’s popularity continues to dwindle. Yet recent Polling by Redfield and Wilton shows that whilst there has been small dip in popularity from 47% to 43% since the Cummings affair, the Conservatives have not continued to suffer from this fall.
Ever wary of accusations of ‘political point scoring’ Starmer faithfully relies upon the opinions of experts, routinely quoting statements by the Royal College of Physicians, YouGov, and many more. This is of course a mark of his training as a Barrister, which has helped to expose the government’s incompetence when contradicted by the statements of civil servants, as well as their own advisors. More importantly, Starmer’s deference to them marks a significant political challenge to Gove’s infamous claim that “we’ve had enough of experts”. It is not entirely clear though if Britain has had enough of experts, and with 4 years left on the road to election time, there is still much track to be laid if Starmer is to be successful in this approach.