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Artillery Row

Will Keir Starmer get a chance at a first impression?

Three opposition leaders have made it into government in the last 40 years. Keir Starmer faces an uphill battle to become the fourth

Being a leader of the opposition — it is often said – is the toughest job in British politics. While Prime Ministers decide, opposition leaders can’t even advise. The task facing Keir Starmer is the most unenviable for any Labour leader since 1935 as various commentators have argued in The Critic this month. In the past 40 years, only three individuals have found the winning strategy to turn opposition into a government. These were Margaret Thatcher (1979), Tony Blair (1997) and David Cameron (2010). Looking back at their first days as leaders of their parties, one can draw the same conclusion from each of them; their language rapidly captured a mood for change — both in the country and in the direction of the party.

In 1975 Margaret Thatcher offered a distinctly different approach to the politics of the Heath/Wilson era. During the stale general election of October 1974, The Sun summed up the mood of a country in a ‘state of near-despair’ at the ‘tired and discredited’ leaders who ‘do not inspire’, with no hope of a ‘Churchill on the horizon’. Thatcher’s approach was to move away from the convoluted language of incomes policies and price mechanisms. Instead, hers was the politics of the ‘ordinary housewife’. Such rhetoric – of the humble grocer’s daughter – was evident in her first broadcast to the nation. She claimed to embody the ‘ordinary’ majority with a backstory that ‘represents an attitude, an approach’ to life. Her conservatism was drilled down to simply as ‘being able by your own efforts to help your children have a better chance than you did’. Her projection of ordinariness was a reaction against the technocratic solutions of the 1970s and would set the tone for her decade at the top.

Almost 20 years later, Tony Blair similarly simplified Labour’s message. During the 1994 Labour leadership contest, he framed his politics as ‘common sense’ and admitted, in enemy territory of the Sun newspaper, that he would ‘be like Thatcher…we need character, not policy documents’. For a Labour leader, his originality lay in the projection of an iron discipline and a ruthlessness to win.

Given the nickname Bambi – by commentators who believed he was too inexperienced – Blair waded in on the issues that Labour politicians had tied themselves in knots over during the 1980s. It was ‘common sense’ that ‘kids should be brought up in a stable family’, that children should be disciplined at school and that trade unions would receive no special favours from him.  These interventions, in his first week as leader, were a symbolic break from the constrained language of Labour’s past and made a once hostile press take him seriously. By the time Blair moved to revise Clause IV of the party’s constitution a few months later, the Bambi nickname had all but disappeared.

When David Cameron secured the Tory leadership in 2005 it was on the basis that he would be their ‘Heir to Blair’. Cameron projected and spoke the language of change and his ‘big theme’ was to ‘get into the mainstream of British politics’, to ‘change the face of the party’ and ‘talk about subjects that we haven’t talked about’. Those subjects ranged from class A drugs to sexuality to the sale of Chocolate Oranges to children in WHSmith. More substantially, he ditched the party’s policy on NHS privatisation and symbolically swapped the old for the new; rejecting grassroots calls for the return of Jeffrey Archer, opting instead to bring back a fresh-faced Boris Johnson from the political wilderness.

Cameron was politically astute too. His first move as leader was to take advantage of the divide within the Labour Government over education reforms and back the Prime Minister against his warring Chancellor.  Cameron’s impression of a new kind of politics sustained him in his early days as leader. In his first PMQs against Blair, who had easily seen off three Tory leaders, Cameron was cocky enough to deliver the now iconic line: ‘I want to talk about the future. He was the future once.’ With that, Cameron ushered in the new political era.

Keir Starmer is already handicapped by the circumstances of our current crisis

Of course, there were many pitfalls en route to Number Ten for Thatcher, Blair and Cameron. But there was a clear distinction between them and the politics that came before them. For Keir Starmer, he is already handicapped by the circumstances of our current crisis. There will be no leadership coronation or prolonged period dominating the news agenda. And there is one historical parallel he will be working to avoid. On September 12, 2001, after a tortious and bitter three-month contest, the Conservatives were due to introduce Iain Duncan Smith to the world as their new leader. However, the announcement was postponed in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. The ceremony at the Queen Elizabeth Centre was cancelled and a brief statement from him admitting that ‘this is not the day for party politics’ was released instead.  Just two years later he was gone. Duncan Smith still believes that it was 9/11 that thwarted him: ‘It was impossible for weeks or months to get anywhere near any domestic debate’.

History shows us that there is no time to waste and Starmer must find a way of showing the electorate that the Labour Party really is back in business. 

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