It’s just a statement of polling and focus group fact that the electorate are beginning to warm to Rishi whilst never really taking to Keir. Rishi consistently polls ahead of the Tory party and is in effect dragging the Tory party vote up. While dear old Keir consistently polls lower than the Labour party and thus is dragging the Labour vote down. Why so?
There is some interesting symmetry in their current roles. Keir’s job on being elected was to rescue the Labour Party from the historic low point Jeremy Corbyn had delivered. His first task was to junk the Looney Left policies, consign the Corbyn crew to (at worst) the far reaches of the back benches or (at best) kick them out of party altogether, and to make the Labour Party look sensible, serious and electable again. He's been doing a credible job and is on track to achieve these reasonable if slightly unambitious aims.
Bizarrely Rishi’s job has been to do almost exactly the same thing for the Tory party. He needed to rescue it from the horrible Truss abyss and reset voters’ opinions that the Conservative party is once again competent, able to repair the economy and not busily preoccupied killing each other in a circular firing squad about issues like the EU, illegal migration, house building in the blue wall etc. He’s made a good start on some of these, although readers will perhaps reflect that the last one is a gaping chasm in his policy agenda right now!
The Keir conundrum
So let’s deal with dull old Sir Keir first. Every week the Leader of the Opposition (LOTO) is gifted a moment on Wednesday’s at 12 o’clock to publicly beat up the PM of the day. For us political nerds it’s a primetime popcorn moment each week. For LOTOs who are going somewhere, on track to win office, they turn the PM into their personal punchbag week after week, month of the month; think Cameron versus Brown, Blair versus Major, Thatcher versus Callaghan. It’s a sort of blood sport where, as the weeks go by, even the politically hard-hearted begin to feel sorry for the endlessly bruised and bloodied sitting PM.
So why is our knighted barrister not winning these battles? It’s an open goal every week. Why can’t he slot the ball into the back of the net again and again? It's an interesting question which the REC team have been pondering for some time. We think it boils down to a number of things.
First off, Kier Starmer is quite a newbie in politics. Having had a long, endlessly trumpeted career in the CPS, he arrived in politics late in life. He hasn’t spent years campaigning door-to-door, delivering the leaflets, knocking up on election morning, giving the stump speeches at far-flung constituency dinners. He hasn’t spent years pressing the flesh of the party faithful, making all his learning mistakes as an obscure councillor and backbench MP. His quick elevation to LOTO is akin to the police fast-tracking someone to police commissioner who hasn’t done the hard yards as a constable, sergeant, inspector etc, parachuting them in at assistant chief constable level for a short while before giving them the top job. It might work out, but the likelihood is those missing decades of experience will mean it won’t.
Sadly, he’s also deadly dull. The focus groups don’t lie. He comes over as very worthy but soooo boring. Surprisingly for a barrister, even a CPS one, he doesn’t seem to have any sharp, quick-witted, polished, instinctive political acumen, seemingly unable to think on his feet and turn the debate around. He’s just rather bland, which is a problem as the cut and thrust of modern day politics relies on larger-than-life leaders charismatically inspiring voters to put those little crosses in the right box on election day.
This is somewhat Keir’s tragedy. He is a truly decent guy, with lots of good intentions, and you couldn’t meet someone with more earnestness. But, whatever the political ‘it’ is, he clearly doesn’t have much of it. Add to that, and perhaps because he hasn't had that long apprenticeship in council-land and on the backbenches, he doesn't seem to have a rock solid ideological anchor which means his opinions get buffeted by events and he very publicly flip flops around on issue to issue. The media have now picked up on that and thus so now have voters.
The Rishi polish
Now let’s analyse Rishi. In some ways, he too is a little boring. For Starmer that's a challenge; as LOTO he needs to fight for attention. And the obvious an unflattering comparison for him is always Blair. Bizarrely for Rishi being a little boring is actually a positive. Because after Boris and Truss, a bit of quiet, unflashy competence for much of the electorate is frankly a breath of fresh air.
Interestingly he too has not toiled in the party political salt mines, spending years finding a winnable parliamentary seat after long service as a local councillor. So, like Keir, he also doesn’t have a long parliamentary career for reference. But he does seem have some interesting ingredients: he is clearly very clever which he couples with a calm and reassuring bedside manner. And although his time in frontline politics has been short, his time as a high profile chancellor during the covid crisis has meant his impact has been noticeable to the electorate. Many voters recall him as the architect of the furlough scheme that saved their jobs during the dark days of the pandemic. And he has made some very astute hires, surrounding himself with some very experienced campaigners who have pulled apart the stratospherically horrible inheritance he was gifted by the human hand grenade that was Liz Truss and somehow worked out how to build a quietly compelling narrative of governing competence, which voters are clearly noticing and rewarding by dragging the Tory party’s polling upwards.
Who knows how this will pan out? There is still a long way to go. But there does seem to be a little bit of Neil Kinnock in Keir, sadly for him, and quite a lot of John Major in Rishi, which might just give him some hope.