Keir Starmer to oust Boris Johnson? How history shows UK may be ready for a boring prime minister – Alastair Stewart
As principled, decent, and honourable as he purports to be, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is a little, well... boring.
The answer to why Boris Johnson keeps hanging on lies in the roots of his success. A disarming style disguised as buffoonery protects him from his nebulous relationship with the truth.
Maybe it is time for Starmer to seize on that difference between them and not even try to shy away from his dullness. It is time for the return of the ‘men in grey suits’ who act and sound like middle-aged bank managers.
Skip the open-handed photo ops or faux addresses to the nations; let's get photos of Sir Keir with maps and graphs as he plots the next five years. If ever there was a time for a man with less ego and more plan, it is now.
Decades of politicians trying to be all things to all men usually end in disappointment. Sir Anthony Blair (Tony is a stage name no one should sanction) was acclaimed for his electoral malleability. He could look serious with fish and chips one minute and lavishly toast Champagne socialism the next.
Blair was a three-time election winner. He was also a charlatan. He was not the first politician to present a tailored image, but he was the first British premier to do so in an age of 24/7 news and burgeoning social media. But we're wise to the act now, with every captured moment dissected for any staged or phoney chicanery.
Now Starmer has gambled his reputation on not having had a beer and a curry. If Durham police issue a fine against the Labour leader for breaching lockdown rules in 2021, he will resign on principle. It almost seems an ironic dovetail to New Labour.
A friend of mine holds the impressively grand theory that British prime ministers come in pairs. First, there is an engaging, energised, and watershed candidate who wins and promises a flurry of spark and zeal. Whether he succeeds or not in the office is irrelevant. Nor does it matter if they are there for five years or ten.
Whether by election or succession, the next prime minister is not without the pleasantries but is generally awkward and certainly lacks the intensity of their predecessor. Bright and furious is always followed by bold and bland. The press will mistake introversion for weakness.
Winston Churchill's coalition deputy and Labour leader Clement Attlee famously succeeded him in 1945. “A sheep in sheep's clothing”, Attlee won unexpectedly because he offered the nation the tangible, domestic, tedious detail that Churchill was incapable of. Winning world wars was one thing, giving the country the National Health Service, full employment and tackling demobilisation another.
But Churchill's propensity to cheat political death marshalled itself around an anti-nationalisation message, and he was returned to office again in 1951. The widening Cold War, decolonisation, and the atomic age, to say nothing of a minor conspiracy to hide a series of debilitating strokes from the country, was a fascinating last act.
Anthony Eden, forever the Robin to the much larger Batman of Churchill, replaced him in 1955. His ambition stifled his ego, and a complicated dependence on stimulants for pain contributed to the catastrophic Suez Crisis.
International events have and always will afford no end of emergencies. According to the journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge, they do not make the man any more interesting, for Eden was a "tedious, serious Etonian".
While Eden was known as a dashing, talented man, his private life and preference for foreign affairs made him a liability to tackling inflation and other domestic concerns. The 1955 general election was the last time the Conservatives won the majority vote share in Scotland.
Of Britain's 15 post-war prime ministers, the pattern between interesting and dull managers should be some solace to Keir Starmer. While not necessarily looking like a poster boy for the pattern, Eden nevertheless presided over the lowest unemployment figures of the post-Second World War era.
The accomplishments of 'drab' men like Ted Heath, John Major or Gordon Brown will always fall under the shadow of the legacy created by their towering predecessors.
Conversely, memorable electoral victories or proactive initiatives do not erase the ledger of odious decisions made by the likes of Blair or Margaret Thatcher. Interesting does not mean better, and boring does not mean uninventive.
When considering the challenges of Covid, the cost-of-living crisis, and resurgent issues with Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol, you must ask if our current prime minister is in his Churchillian heyday or struggling in Attleean times.
Johnson worships Churchill. And every fibre of his being wanted the baubles of international leadership without actually having to conduct a campaign for survival.
"Winning" the pandemic was not the same as "managing" the pandemic – Johnson never did have the temperament to do so, and his biggest lie to date is not admitting that to himself.
The Ukraine Crisis has afforded him his "moment" in which his legacy – if the latest Eurovision result is anything to go by – may be overwhelmingly positive.
If history follows the precedent here, Johnson fights the next general election based on wartime successes abroad while managing home front missteps. That is the rationale for his Conservative colleagues not replacing him.
Sadly, it might seem too late to curtail the damage already wrought by those domestic minutiae, particularly as we face an even larger energy crisis.
Starmer cannot assume history will bend in his favour, but for all our sakes, his strategy from this moment onwards should be for detail, detail, detail over Johnson's bluff, buffoonery and bust.
As Enoch Powell commented, “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”.
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