Labour Leader” Starmer throw away a 20-point lead to win the election

Sir Keir Starmer and Labour are leading in the polls by 20-odd points and he is heading for Downing Street with a massive majority. But so was Theresa May in 2017.

In campaigns, unexpected things happen. And they are more likely to happen to candidates who are not natural campaigners – politicians who cannot put in great performances that sway the electorate. In short, candidates like this are not in control.

Starmer campaigns more like May than Lord Cameron, let alone the great political geniuses of Tony Blair or Boris Johnson. As such, he is vulnerable to things happening to him in the campaign – and ultimately to look like he just has not got what it takes to be prime minister.

We live in a parliamentary system; people are not voting for a president but for a prime minister and a cabinet. But elections have become increasingly focused on the leaders. This is partly down to the leaders’ debates, but it also reflects the parties’ choices to centralise campaigns around a small number of themes their leaders are thought to exemplify.

As such, this election is going to be between Rishi Sunak and Starmer. Policy always matters, but in the campaign, character and image ultimately determine the final result.

There are three great known danger points for Starmer, where his character will be seriously tested. Firstly, his campaign launch, which must come soon. Secondly, the manifesto. Thirdly, and most importantly, the televised debates.

Forget his party conference speech last autumn; hardly anyone will have seen this. The public still knows little about him and these moments will provide many with their first proper introduction to the man expected to be their next prime minister.

People will be sizing him up. Can they imagine him leading the country in a crisis? Can they imagine him meeting the president of the United States? Will he be on their side when they are struggling?

The truth is that Starmer is not made for these events. His party conference speech was well-received but it was hardly great “retail politics”. Fundamentally, he lacks emotion; he seems awkward; he looks like something might go wrong at any moment – and he would be embarrassed and devastated if it did.

There is already a narrative gently building in the media that he is bland and dull – and has little of substance to push. It is easy to imagine this narrative developing more seriously in the campaign if his big moments fall flat.

And this is what got Theresa May in 2017. Yes, the tide began to turn after a policy error – when the manifesto appeared to threaten high social care costs – but it was the idea that she was boring and robotic that made people question whether she was the right choice. (It is also hard to imagine, post-May, that Labour will make a similar policy mistake; all manifestos are totally risk-averse now.)

Sunak is cut from similar cloth to Starmer. He is hardly built for the big events either. But the public think they know Sunak; he has been around for years and his oddness is baked into the mind of the electorate. Poor performances by Starmer will be an actual disappointment.

His team will know that these moments are critical and they will be preparing for them accordingly. They will think his party conference speech shows he can turn in a decent performance when it comes.

But the real dangers for Starmer come on the street: in his interactions with ordinary voters and with those people the public loves and respects: teachers, nurses, small business owners and all the rest.

Johnson could charm his way out of any difficult situation a few years ago. Blair and Cameron could too, to a lesser extent. But Starmer does not have that same easy charm; he cannot just talk his way out of trouble or laugh off difficult moments.

It is easy to imagine an embarrassing mistake on the campaign trail which could spiral into questions about his character and charisma. It is impossible to plan for any of this.

Paradoxically, Starmer could also become a victim of his massive poll lead going into the campaign. He is likely at the high watermark of his popularity. Even if he performs well throughout, election campaigns there is invariably a shift towards the status quo, even if mild.

Disappointing performances and/or an error on the campaign trail, coupled with a shift towards the Government, could easily create the idea that the energy is leaving his campaign and the momentum lies elsewhere.

Over the last few months, swing voters in focus groups have started to gently come around to Starmer. Appearing to be the inevitable new prime minister has made many people grow comfortable with the idea. Lots of these voters think he is not so bad.

But for most of the last few years, these same swing voters were outspoken in their hostility towards him. The same criticisms came up constantly: that he just moaned about the Government and offered few solutions; and that he lacked charisma and leadership.

These concerns have not gone away, they have simply faded somewhat. They could easily return in this campaign.

At this point, we need a giant reality check. Yes, Starmer is vulnerable; yes, his lead is built primarily on irritation with the Tories and not on enthusiasm for his leadership and policy platform. But a 20-point lead is a 20-point lead. And irritation – anger even – with the Conservatives is a real force.

As such, Starmer goes into the election as the favourite and he will walk into Downing Street in July. Sunak will not be able to deliver John Major’s upset of 1992. There are no meaningful parallels.

But the election will be brutal – they always are – and people will be looking hard at Starmer for the first time. He is bound to have a rough time and the polls could well narrow. Perhaps the best the Tories can hope for is, like May, Starmer walks into Downing Street as a weakened prime minister who will struggle to manage the country, perhaps even to manage his own party.

James Frayne is the founding partner of the research agency Public First

 

 

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