Is Keir Starmer a prime minister in waiting?

Even the least favourable polls have Boris Johnson behind his Labour rival

Keir Starmer
(Image credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Keir Starmer could be forgiven for cracking open a couple of bottles of champagne this new year, said Anne McElvoy in The Guardian. Labour can finally celebrate its first consistent poll lead over the Conservatives: “a seven-point advantage” which takes the party into territory where it might just win a general election.

Starmer deserves this break: he “held his nerve” during a “gruelling house clean” after the divisive Corbyn era. Now “Team Keir” has been revived by his November reshuffle, and is taking Labour towards the centre ground, with Rachel Reeves as an “assiduous shadow chancellor”; Lisa Nandy on the “levelling-up” brief, fighting to win back “red wall” seats; and the Blair-era minister Yvette Cooper as shadow home secretary.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that the public has yet to fall in love with Starmer – though it’s wearying of Boris Johnson after a series of sleaze scandals. As one Labour MP put it: “Our challenge is to light the fire.”

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Starmer launched his charm offensive early this year, said Chris Mason on BBC News. The “political curtain raiser” of 2022 was his speech on Monday, in which he stressed his patriotism and promised to restore trust in government if he won power. He offered “straight leadership”, saying: “I don’t think politics is a branch of the entertainment industry. I think it’s the serious business of getting things done.”

His strategy is working, said John Rentoul in The Independent. Qualities of Starmer’s that were once seen as weaknesses – his seriousness and earnestness – have finally been reframed as strengths. For a long time, even when the Tories flagged in the polls, “Teflon” Johnson’s personal ratings stayed buoyant. But the Prime Minister suddenly hit “real unpopularity” for the first time in December.

Even the least favourable polls have Johnson behind his Labour rival. It’s now obvious that the “doom and gloom” about Starmer’s “anti-charisma” was overdone. “People can see Starmer as a prime minister.”

Maybe so, said Paul Mason in the New Statesman, but the “battles of 2022” are likely to be won or lost over the rising cost of living, – particularly energy prices, which are expected to soar by around 50%. Here Labour has a great opportunity, if Starmer chooses to take it. A windfall tax on the oil and gas giants, for instance, would be both just and very popular.

But the “awkward” fact is that, so far, Labour’s turnaround has very little to do with anything Starmer has done, said Stephen Bush in The Sunday Times. He’s riding high because of Tory failures. His broad political identity is still a work in progress. This is the year when Starmer will have to “shape his own destiny”.

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