First impressions matter in politics. Once the public have made their mind up about a politician, they rarely change it. This is why the first 100 days in charge are so important for any new leader. Get off to a good start, and everything is possible. Stumble out of the gate and your race is run.
Keir Starmer is widely expected to be announced as the new leader of Britain’s Labour party on Saturday, but he faces the prospect of having to keep his distance from the electorate for the bulk of his first 100 days. The pandemic means that he won’t have the choices that normally come to the winner. There can be no victory rally, no tour of the country designed to show that there aren’t any ‘no-go areas’ for him — the whole country is a no-go area for anyone who isn’t local.
Through no fault of his own, he will struggle to make the news of his victory the main story that day. The government expects the coronavirus peak to start in the week beginning April 12, and the headlines the week before will still be dominated by the grim announcement of the daily death toll and theories about what that means for the spread of the virus.
There is a parallel for Starmer’s situation. In 2001, voting in the Tory leadership election ended on September 11. The attacks on the Twin Towers meant that it wasn’t thought appropriate to announce the result the next day, so it was pushed back to the 13th. The headlines, though, were still dominated by terrorism — and continued to be for months — meaning that Iain Duncan Smith never had the chance to introduce himself to the public. This may be at least one of the reasons why he became the first Tory leader since Neville Chamberlain not to lead his party into a general election.
One of the other problems for Duncan Smith was that all politics seemed to be going on within the Labour party at that time. The Blair/Brown tensions meant that there was a kind of opposition within the governing party, which wrote the official opposition out of the script. Worryingly for Starmer, something rather similar is beginning to happen at the moment within the Conservative party. Possibly the most political aspect of this crisis is the tension between Jeremy Hunt (the former health secretary and Boris Johnson’s leadership rival), who has repeatedly called for more testing, and the government, which is struggling to introduce this.
The irony is that if an inquiry happens (which Downing Street views as likely), its remit will include looking at how a pandemic was prepared for over the past decade. Hunt was health secretary for half that period.
Starmer’s biggest advantage as Labour leader will be that he is not Jeremy Corbyn. Tory MPs admit that at the last election, Corbyn was their single biggest asset: people simply did not want him as prime minister.
Corbyn was a protest march politician, not a parliamentarian. Starmer will do a much better job of holding Boris Johnson to account in the Commons. Friends of the prime minister accept that Starmer is likely to get the better of him at PMQs. One tells me that ‘Boris is never going to be a parliamentary natural’ and that Starmer will score victories at the despatch box. But they argue that this doesn’t matter, because Johnson’s position in the House comes not from his mastery of the chamber, but from his majority. PMQs also makes very little impression outside of Westminster: for four years William Hague regularly bested Tony Blair, but he gained the Tories just one seat in 2001.
One bear trap for Starmer is the issue of an extension to the Brexit transition, which is due to come to an end on December 31. There is a case to be made that COVID-19 means it would be sensible for the UK’s exit from the single market and the customs union to be delayed, since businesses are too busy dealing with the fallout from this crisis to prepare for new trading arrangements between the UK and the EU. But if Starmer becomes the principal advocate of transition extension, he risks looking as if he is still refusing to accept the Brexit referendum result. He would be well advised to let others make this argument, rather than spending his first months as party leader appearing to refight the battles of the past few years.
Yet in some ways Starmer will be in a more propitious position than he could have hoped for at the start of this contest. The level of state activism in the past few weeks has, to an extent, normalized a far greater role for the government in the economy. As one minister puts it: ‘Once you’ve done all these things, even if they are only temporary, you have opened Pandora’s Box. You have admitted that it is possible.’
Despite the government’s — and Boris Johnson’s — poll ratings shooting up during this crisis, Tories privately think they are now at a greater risk of losing in 2024. The main reason is that opposition parties don’t win elections, governments lose them.
There are several clear ways in which the Tories can forfeit the next election. One is if this crisis overwhelms the National Health Service — but senior figures in government are more confident than they were last week that this will not happen. The second is if the economy is pushed into a prolonged recession by the virus. The longer the wait for the antibody test, the longer it will be before this lockdown can be lifted, and the more profound the economic damage will be. If the tax base shrinks considerably during this period, then the Tories may well not be able to deliver on their ‘leveling-up’ agenda. The third way is if the UK is not properly prepared for the end of the Brexit transition period.
Starmer faces many challenges. The fundamental gulf between Labour’s metropolitan membership and its traditional northern heartland supporters will not be easily repaired — and certainly not by a former advocate of a second referendum who sits for a London seat. But despite the difficulty he will have in making a first impression, the new Labour leader will have a better chance of taking the party to power than seemed likely the morning after last year’s general election.