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Leaders Revealed by Covid-19: Keir Starmer, or Boris Johnson's Mosquito

Leaders Revealed by Covid-19: Keir Starmer, or Boris Johnson's Mosquito
 Marion Van Renterghem
Senior Reporter, Albert-Londres Prize Winner and Author

What makes a moment of truth for Prime Minister Boris Johnson also makes a moment of opportunity for the new Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer. The Covid-19 crisis is a political game changer for the United Kingdom; this is brilliantly illustrated in this comparative double-portrait of the two British leaders, drawn for us by the great journalist and essayist Marion Van Renterghem.

Michel Duclos, Special advisor on geopolitics, Editor in Chief of this summer series.


When Boris Johnson became the Leader of the Conservative Party, then settled in 10 Downing Street in July 2019, the then-leader of the Opposition and Labour Party seemed to be the least of his concerns. The new British Prime Minister had methodically risen to power, first by suddenly seizing the promising niche that was Brexit, then by doing away with Theresa May - who had made him Foreign Secretary in 2016 - breaking her down little by little until she was forced to give up her seat. Jeremy Corbyn, archaic leader of a declining Labour Party, was an easy hurdle to get over and an ideal opponent whom he made short work of.

Until now, it seemed impossible to find two personalities more opposed than Corbyn and Johnson to lead the two main political parties in the United Kingdom. During the few months they spent face to face in the House of Commons, their remarkable disparities were almost comical. On the one hand, with his austere thinness and closely trimmed grey beard, Corbyn was the figurehead of an ancient and unchanging left, frozen in the Trotskyism of the 1970s and thawed as it was, stiff and rigorous, preferring the fundamentalism of revolutionary programs to the realism of power. On the other hand there was Johnson, a hairy, potbellied, exuberant, enthusiastic, charismatic, eruptive and frolicsome, an eccentric blond Tory with a posh accent trying to pass for "the will of the people", a lawless populist as never seen before in the United Kingdom. These two were thought to be the most unusual and contradictory sample of the most unusual and contradictory face-to-face encounter in British political life.

And then a third man arrived. A third prototype, that resembles neither one nor the other to the point of being the opposite of both. As ideologically flexible as Corbyn is intractable, as hard-working, loyal and serious as Johnson is glib, cynical and exuberant. More unexpected, too, than Corbyn and Johnson together. Keir Starmer, ladies and gentlemen. No one had seen this third companion coming, who was going to establish himself as Boris Johnson's first real opponent, and who may be the future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. No one could have foreseen that the historic health, economic and social crisis we are experiencing would be such a cruel moment of truth about Boris Johnson's incompetence in power, and conversely, a moment of revelation about Keir Starmer's rigorous combativeness. He seized the unhoped-for opportunity to move suddenly from the status of an almost ordinary activist to that of a leader, with an assurance that was unsuspected.

And then a third man arrived. A third prototype, that resembles neither one nor the other to the point of being the opposite of both. As ideologically flexible as Corbyn is intractable, as hard-working, loyal and serious as Johnson is glib, cynical and exuberant.

The new leader of the Labor Party is a 57-year-old lawyer, specialized in human rights. In 1990, he co-founded the law firm Doughty Street Chambers (where Amal Clooney works), known for having brilliantly defended activists against the McDonalds company and fought against the death penalty in African and Caribbean countries. Married to an NHS administrator, he did not enter the political arena until 2015, when he won the London constituency of Holborn and St Pancras. The then leader of the Labour party, Ed Miliband, had entrusted him with "this unlosable constituency," says Denis MacShane, former Labour Minister, "a sort of Parisian Left Bank district where the top Labour lawyers, journalists and teachers live and dine". Obviously, Miliband never imagined for a second that this favor would lead Starmer to take over the party, and even less that he would himself become one of the ministers of his shadow cabinet five years later.

A little more than a month before his election as leader of Labour, a headline in the Financial Times still referred to him as "Boring Starmer", an epithet repeated even by his best friends. Three months after his victory in April 2020, Jim Pickard, head of the newspaper's political department, praised the swiftness with which this dull character had already made his mark on the party; the weekly paper The New European, close to Tony Blair's New Labour, described him as "The Coming Starm" - that is, the storm capable of repositioning the party back to the center.

So, is Keir Starmer really dull and boring? He is not exactly a very charismatic person. His wise speeches don't thrill the crowds and none of them are particularly memorable. He is adorned with a strange hairstyle, with thick, slicked hair separated by a clean side parting, like an American actor in a sixties soap-opera. His eyelash-less eyes and unnatural smile give him a false air of Dick York, who played Darrin, Samantha's husband in Bewitched – and who never struck anyone as a very smart character. Keir Starmer has the same dazed look on his face as Darrin, that same painful wrinkle of worry on his forehead, when, sitting at the centre table of the House of Commons, facing the two despatch boxes separating the Prime Minister from the Leader of the Opposition, he seems to be making a superhuman effort of concentration to find meaning in Boris Johnson's answers, as flamboyant as they are entangled and imprecise. Keir Starmer, therefore, does not look good. And yet... "For someone who has only been an MP for a few years, he really succeeded very, very quickly. I don't know how far he'll go, but in any case, that means he has something," admits Tony Blair's former strategic advisor, Alastair Campbell.

For it is precisely in the House of Commons that Keir Starmer’s blossoming started. His luck, so to speak, was to land there in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, which was being disastrously handled by the government. In the context of a complex pandemic leading to catastrophic human, economic and social aftermath, being a leader more than ever requires work, precision, rigor, empathy, ethics, political vision and strategic coherence; in other words, all the qualities that Boris Johnson lacks, being too busy parading as the formidable winning machine, better at making enthusiastic campaign promises than performing his duties as Prime Minister. This was quickly reflected in the opinion polls. To the question "Who would you think would be the best Prime Minister?" asked by YouGov during the month of August, Starmer came out on top for the first time (34%), ahead of Johnson (32%).

Keir Starmer knew that he was disadvantaged: the dashing Boris Johnson is more charismatic, more political, more cynical, more cunning, more instinctive and a better orator than he is. He understood that there was no point in attacking him, as Corbyn did, with an ideological or moral straitjacket - which Johnson does not have and could not care less about. Modestly, Starmer simply took aim at Johnson’s three weak spots: his arrogance, his laziness, and his ignorance.

His arrogance is that of the British conservatives who attended Oxford and Eton, educated in the conviction that they are superior and were born to rule. His laziness reveals the character of a very gifted hedonist for whom life consists above all in playing and winning, and for whom becoming the Prime Minister was more enjoyable than actually being the Prime Minister. As for his ignorance, it is not a defect of culture, for he is a brilliant biographer of Churchill, capable of showing off by reciting Greek and Latin tirades; rather, his ignorance is political. It is the indispensable, deliberate tool of a populist who understands that, in the age of social networks, power is obtained by reducing problems to simplistic answers, by glorifying "the people" against "the elites", and therefore by disdaining knowledge, expertise, facts.

The Starmer method is simple and cruel: [let's] call it the mosquito method. He spins around, without ever tiring, with a little noise that can drive anyone crazy. [...] Thus, he systematically reminds the facts to his opponent, whose strategy of conquest is made of denial and lies.

The Starmer method is simple and cruel: we will call it the mosquito method. He spins around, without ever tiring, with a little noise that can drive anyone crazy. It flies next to one’s ear just when one starts falling asleep. And thus, he systematically reminds the facts to his opponent, whose strategy of conquest is made of denial and lies. He then calmly greets his opponent’s digressions and dodges, with exasperating courtesy. Johnson, the populist, has gone from the most sectarian and expected opponent (Corbyn) to the toughest enemy, the one he never envisioned in his worst nightmares, the one he can't get rid of: Starmer the mosquito, or the annoying one who likes to cross the T’s and dot the I’s for the king of dodge, turmoil and mix-ups.

Week after week, every Wednesday at noon, the new Leader of the Opposition arrives at the Prime Minister's question session with his legal rigour and meticulously organized files. "The metaphor that best suits Starmer is "A safe pair of hands", comments Guardian reporter Jon Henley. It's the expression used in cricket to describe the player that is the most skilled at catching the ball without ever dropping it.

Indeed, he does catch every ball. When Johnson, to get away with a question about families bereaved by the virus, compares his opponent to a Calvin Klein underwear salesman, "boring Starmer", with an air of sorrow, brings him back to the question. When Johnson accuses the caregivers of not "following procedures," Starmer asks him three times to apologize. When Johnson lies shamelessly in front of the MPs, Starmer points out his mistakes one after the other - as much as he can, since Boris Johnson multiple lies are a way for him to muddy the waters. How to react when the Prime Minister, to clear himself, wrongly claims that the creation of free ports in the UK is only possible thanks to Brexit (the EU has twenty of them), that no country has been able to create a good online application against Covid-19 (the Germans were not pleased), that Starmer never criticized Russia for poisoning a spy in England (he did the opposite), that the Brexit deal was "oven-ready" (that was a year ago and we are still waiting), that the same Brexit would guarantee a fabulous trade agreement with Japan or India (who still question the interest of an alliance with the post-Brexit UK), and, above all – and this was a decisive argument for leaving the EU - with the United States (the agreement has completely failed), or that his management of Covid-19 is a "clear success", when the UK ranks second worst in Europe in terms of deaths per million inhabitants - after Belgium?

When Johnson lies shamelessly in front of the MPs, Starmer points out his mistakes one after the other - as much as he can, since Boris Johnson multiple lies are a way for him to muddy the waters.

Keir Starmer's responses suddenly gave an embarrassing visibility to these numerous inaccuracies, which, until then, had been going unnoticed. Fearing that the Starmer-Johnson match would degenerate into a knockout blow to their champion, the government demanded the return of in-person Parliament sooner than expected, for the Zoom meetings, lacking the atmosphere of its MPs laughing at his jokes or shouting "Hear!", were starting to weaken the energy and oratory performances that made Boris’s reputation. These questions sessions with the Prime Minister were turning into torture, and the last one, on July 22, brought great relief before the summer break. Bzzzzz. On video conferences or in person at Westminster, the mosquito is always there, restless, infuriating.

Until when, and until where? To be competent, tenacious, hard-working, reasonable and efficient are admirable qualities to decently fulfill one's role as an opponent, but they have never been enough to make a head of state or government. Neither is being a brilliant lawyer, even if the profession has brought luck to the only leader who brought Labour to power since 1976, and for three successive terms: Tony Blair. Even if Keir Starmer’s legitimacy and perseverance within the Labour Party go back to his childhood, being the son of a nurse and the owner of a tool factory in Surrey (South London), who named him Keir after Keir Hardie, one of the founders of the party.

Today, the Labour is a wounded and torn party, undermined by divisions, humiliated by its successive defeats. It has not won a general election since 2010. The last one, in December 2019, brought its worst score since 1935, and it was this historical fiasco that allowed Keir Starmer to rise: the 580,000 members of Labor who elected him with 56.2% of the vote finally admitted that the radical left embodied by Jeremy Corbyn was heading to disaster. "Boring Starmer" eventually stood up as the rallying centrist they needed. More right-wing than Corbyn, of whom he was the reasonable "Mr. Brexit" in the shadow cabinet, and more left-wing than Blair, whose decision to participate in the American war in Iraq he had once criticized. A convinced, yet ultra-prudent European on the sensitive subject for the Labour Party and the whole country: Brexit. Two thirds of the party's electorate had voted to remain in the European Union, while two thirds of its deputies represented constituencies that had voted for Brexit. A puzzle. The new leader is facing "a mountain to climb," as he himself acknowledged right after his election.

Having it both ways can be enchanting and useful, but it cannot last forever. To convert the try, as in rugby, Keir Starmer must now move on to another dimension: the definition of a political vision. For the time being, he continues to give pledges to the right and the left. Against the Corbynists, he shows a firm and unequivocal position against manifestations of anti-Semitism in the party, towards which their leader had been more than complacent - and about which he himself had refrained from pointing out at the time he was in their ranks. Against the Corbynists again, Starmer appointed a shadow cabinet from which they are severely excluded from key positions. On the other hand, he promises them a left-wing economic policy: increased taxation of the rich, abolition of university fees, nationalization of railways, post offices, energy and water. But the Corbynists and the party's left-wing remain the most critical of him. Len McCluskey, leader of Britain's largest trade union, who is also a major contributor to the Labour's finances, never fails to remind him, like a threat, of his programme of commitments.

Defining "Starmerism" is not easy when no majority wants Thatcherism, Blairism or Corbynism any more. It is not easy either when the trendy Johnsonism is polymorphous and fluctuating, from a libertarian liberalism with very ideological slogans on British exceptionalism, to an entity that now claims an ambitious "New Deal": a policy of massive investment in public services that sucks the little blood that was left in the left-wing. Starmer is going to have to stand out and draw his own path, he who refuses to be trapped in past concepts or political references. "I really, really don't like all these labels", he tells Jim Pickard in the Financial Times. "The coronavirus now has effectively shaped everything. The sorts of questions that we thought we were addressing three months ago are now completely different because of the virus."

Two thirds of the party's electorate had voted to remain in the European Union, while two thirds of its deputies represented constituencies that had voted for Brexit. A puzzle.

For political scientist Peter Kellner, former president of the YouGov polling institute, "Starmer's strategy seems to be playing a long game, and indeed he has time. Not only is the next general election not likely to take place until 2024, but Covid-19 has changed everything and allows a leader to redefine his policy. If he wishes, in due course, to jettison policies such as nationalising the utilities, he will do so without hesitation. If he keeps them, it will be because he supports them, not because he fears the Left". On the other hand, Alastair Campbell urges him to commit himself more quickly. "So far, he has laid the groundwork: before the summer, he has softened party divisions, shown his strength in Parliament and gained respect in public opinion. No mistakes. But in September, he will have to quickly move to another level and clarify his policy".

The identity of his future opponent and competitor for Downing Street may also hold surprises. The possibility that Boris Johnson may be dismissed before the end of his term by his parliamentary majority is not excluded. "The Conservatives have a habit of getting rid of leaders when they are clearly failing," observes Peter Kellner: "Margaret Thatcher in 1990, Iain Duncan Smith in 2003, Theresa May last year. If it turns out that Johnson is seen to have screwed up not just Covid-19, but also Brexit - say, there is no deal and there are delays at Dover and Calais, food shortages in the shops etc. - and Labour takes a clear lead in the polls, with Starmer widely seen as more competent than Johnson, then yes, it is possible that Conservative MPs will move against Johnson and get rid of him."

The current Chancellor of the Exchequer, the brilliant Rishi Sunak, would be the current favorite to succeed him. For Keir Starmer, resisting him rather than Boris Johnson, whose long, unshakeable popularity is less and less capable of withstanding the inconsistencies of his leadership amid the crisis, would be a different kettle of fish. A lockdown that was imposed too late, privileges granted to his adviser Dominic Cummings, the prospect of holding one of the worst Covid-19 death tolls in Europe coupled with a historical economic collapse… All this while the man who had promised to "free" the United Kingdom from a Brussels "dictatorship" was criticizing British court decisions, attacking the BBC, making plans to delay the publication of a report revealing possible Russian interference in the Brexit campaign, allowing himself to appoint to the House of Lords, the only unelected chamber in the EU, a Russian oligarch, his own brother and other friends... Boris Johnson's populism is starting to show, and this is Keir Starmer's chance.


Illustration: David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne

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