The economy looks set to plunge into recession; inflation is at its highest for 40 years; some Tory backbenchers are still conspiring to unseat their leader, who has just lost his second ministerial ethics adviser – and could well lose two key by-elections tomorrow.
And yet, who is the politician most under pressure at the moment? Advance Sir Keir Starmer.
It takes a certain skill set for a Leader of the Opposition to get so far behind when so much is going so wrong for the government of the day. But Starmer seems to have the required skills in abundance.
As the PM attempts to navigate extremely choppy waters, it is Starmer who seems closer to capsizing.
But why? Well, there is a clue in what his critics within the Labor Party are saying about him.
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham last week asked his party leader to explain exactly what he stands for.
“There can’t be much more delay now to say ‘This is who we are’, so people can get a sense of where the next Labor government will go,” Burnham told the PM program of Radio 4. “It really needs to happen at the annual Liverpool conference. I would have said it should have started more last year.
And Burnham is by no means alone in seeing Starmer as a political vacuum in human form.
Immigration? The economy? Trans issues? Ukraine? Who knows what he really thinks.
The line, “He’s a nice guy, but what does he stand for?”, is a common refrain repeated by allies and adversaries alike.
As a former Labor MP and minister in the last Labor government, I am appalled at Starmer’s missed opportunities to criticize this Conservative administration.
Think back to the last time an opposition Labor leader had to replace a Conservative government, and the conclusion is obvious: Keir is not Tony Blair.
The latest self-inflicted damage is the best example yet of leadership while at sea.
Strikes on Britain’s railways this week are bringing misery to millions. I must stress at this point that I have no objection to unions having the right to suspend work in support of demands for better pay and conditions. In fact, no one, not even the government, is suggesting they shouldn’t.
But the harsh reality is that railroad workers are already among the highest paid in the country. They also haven’t suffered as much as many others during the pandemic. Their industry – and therefore their jobs – have been saved by an injection of £16billion from taxpayers’ money.
It’s no surprise, then, that commuters feel the RMT should show its appreciation for such largesse by working hard to pull the economy out of the hole Covid has put it in, rather than engaging in a dispute which would cost the hospitality industry alone a whopping £1billion a week.
And when the first nationwide strike in nearly 30 years cripples the rail network, it is reasonable to ask the Labor Party – founded and financed by the unions, remember – what its position is on industrial action.
Who does Her Majesty’s Opposition side with, the pickets or the passengers?
We still don’t know because the ambiguity on this issue starts at the top of the party. When Starmer is asked to criticize unions for their actions, all we get is a turnoff.
The RMT isn’t even affiliated with the Labor Party anymore, so why is Starmer so terrified of upsetting its leadership?
Starmer’s statement on the eve of the strike perfectly summed up his closing tendencies: “We must also show leadership and to that end remember that senior MPs, including Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPS ), should not be on the picket lines.’
Leadership? How can a party show leadership by doing nothing?
To lead means to take a stand, to say what is right, even if it is unpopular with your own supporters.
Ordering your MPs to stay out of sight when the rest of the country is at a standstill is the complete opposite of leadership. But try telling that to “Submarine Starmer” – which, by the way, was nowhere to be found yesterday.
Is it any wonder that in the first hours of the dispute, at least four MPs – three PPS and a whip – flouted Starmer’s instructions and were pictured smiling on picket lines as they showed their solidarity with the railway workers on strike?
Such a challenge surely deserves only one answer – Starmer should issue P45s to his recalcitrant colleagues.
But no. Labor was quick to advise that any decision on whether to discipline them would wait until the weekend, when the official three days of industrial action were over.
Oh, and by then the two key by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton would also be complete and dusted. Pure coincidence, I’m sure.
One can hardly imagine more blatant displays of defiance of the leader’s authority, given the publicity that accompanied Starmer’s original edict. And yet the Labor leader seems too scared of the repercussions to wield the knife.
What any leader of the opposition worth their salt would have done is unequivocally take the side of millions of beleaguered commuters and small businesses jeopardized by the strike.
He or she reportedly told union leaders to call off their strike and announce Labor’s support for legislation requiring unions to provide at least a minimum of staff on strike days. It would have caused quite a fight in his party, but sometimes fights are necessary to clear the air.
This week Starmer had the opportunity to show his party – and the country – who was boss, to let it be known that he, not the TUC, would decide policy under a Labor government.
And if the unions wanted to walk away with their money, they could do so.
Andy Burnham’s question about what Sir Keir stands for is an important and unanswered one.
Starmer’s critics from the party’s pro-Corbyn far left have previously pointed to the leader’s tendency to say one thing and do another.
When he ran for leadership in 2020, he promised to maintain most of his predecessor’s policies, including Corbyn’s now infamous Ten Pledges, promising everything from full employment and freedom of movement to within the EU, the nationalization of entire sectors of industry and the strengthening of trade unions. .
I don’t blame Starmer for denying any of this left-wing nonsense, and I hope we see more of it dropped before Starmer’s term as leader ends. But the story of the Ten Pledges – and their subsequent abandonment by Starmer – tells us more about what he doesn’t believe than what he does.
Last year he published a 14,000-word pamphlet billed as a guide to his personal political philosophy and, to take the message home, he followed it up with a marathon 90-minute speech at the conference. work.
Unfortunately, no one who read the pamphlet or managed to stay awake until the end of the speech was aware of Starmer’s vision for the country.
As soon as Tony Blair became party leader in 1994, he set about rewriting Labour’s rules, reforming the once hallowed Clause IV of the party’s constitution, the unnecessary commitment to the massive renationalisation of industry.
Once in power, he and his chancellor, Gordon Brown, set about introducing bold reforms, early on when they handed over the power to set interest rates to an independent Bank of England.
The contrast with the unfortunate Starmer could hardly be starker. All we got were clues about what he doesn’t believe, but very little about what he does.
This paralysis must end soon. As the song says: If you mean nothing, what are you going to fall for?
Tom Harris served as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport from 2006 to 2008