The role of leader of the opposition can be a curse, as well as an opportunity, and just now – as Johnson completes his second drive-by reshuffle – must be the perfect moment for Sir Keir Starmer to pause and take stock.
The worst government in living memory is beset by crisis after crisis, and no headlines about fresh blood around the cabinet table can disguise the trouble we’re in. Brexit, a disaster of Johnson’s own making, has left crops rotting in the fields, emptied supermarket shelves, laid waste to an army of exporters and turned lorry drivers into a threatened species. Northern Ireland, the victim of Johnson’s disinterest in the small print of pretty much everything, has become an open wound. Covid, with all its attendant mismanagement, has left 134,000 plus dead, a £400 billion pound hole in the national finances, and will probably be with us for a generation.
The Taliban, meanwhile, rode unopposed into Kabul when everyone except the French were looking the other way. Both the Prime Minister and his then-Foreign Secretary were on holiday, and playing catchup is no way to handle the dust settling on those thousands of Afghans to whom we still owe a new life. The fabled Special Relationship, like the fatuous Global Britain, are empty boasts, and you can bet America’s bottom dollar that Australian nuclear subs won’t be creating any new jobs in Barrow-in-Furness. Here’s hoping that Johnson’s despatch of Raab to the gulag of the Ministry of Justice – the graveyard of successive careers – will turn out to be a major mistake for his own survival. Raab may have many virtues but forgiveness isn’t one of them. Just now, in football terms, the Opposition are spoiled for open goals.
And yet Starmer finds himself still hunting for a tune that the electorate will at least recognise. Calling out Johnson for serial incompetence once a week in the House of Commons has become a chore and a bore. Everyone knows the Prime Minister is way out his depth, and simply repeating it becomes wearisome. What Starmer needs, very badly, is the V-word. Given the electoral arithmetic, this is a moment for Vision.
The electoral arithmetic favours the Tories, and the government know it. Scotland, once a Labour fiefdom, has gone to the SNP. Thanks to some blowhard promises to ‘level-up’ (whatever that means), Johnson has gorged himself on traditional Labour seats in the north. This is fancy footwork of the highest order and has left Starmer licking his electoral wounds. In the south, the Lib Dems are showing signs of a modest revival, and the daily ravages of global warming should be playing into the hands of the Greens, yet a divided opposition – under first past the post – will never unseat the current lot, no matter how deep the wounds they continue to inflict on each other, and on us.
And so the moment, you might think, has arrived for the opposition to bury their differences and present a beleaguered country with a genuine alternative to the coming years crouched on the international naughty step. Will they do it? Will they kiss and make up? Will the Lib Dems resist the temptation to parlay an admittedly astonishing result at Chesham and Amersham into evidence that they’re preparing for government? It’s fantasies like these on which, with increasing desperation, the Government depend. A divided opposition is no opposition at all, and in Downing Street that makes Johnson very happy indeed.
But imagine it happens. Imagine some form of coalition against a quarrelsome government majority with little collective idea of where they’re going, or how they’ll ever get there. Isn’t now the time for a bold New Deal to close the gap between rich and poor? For a coming together of Big Science and Big Finance to slash carbon outputs, insulate the nation’s housing stock, build a home-grown manufacturing base for electric everything, fuelled by offshore wind sites on a gigantic scale? Hasn’t the moment arrived to tackle the ugliness in public spaces, and return communities large and small to people who have the wit and patience to care? Wouldn’t that – at last – offer a rousing alternative to meaningless spats about ministers asleep at the wheel?
Politicians of every stripe, at the very least, have a duty to truly engage us. We want to believe them. We need to believe them. But without the V-word, we’ll just shake our heads and turn away. Which will, of course, bring a smile to every Tory face. Just now, they’re busier than ever dismantling the few defences we have left. The election bill is a covert bid to make democracy the property of the Conservative Party, while our new Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has doubtless been tasked to take an even heavier wrecking ball to both the BBC and Channel Four.
This week’s reshuffle has confirmed that Johnson means to press on regardless. Quite where that journey might lead doesn’t appear to bother him in the slightest. What matters now, as it’s mattered since he entered Downing Street, is raw power. The V-word, he contends, is strictly for losers.
He’s wrong, of course. And now, as Labour’s annual Conference approaches, is the moment for Starmer to prove it.