General election 2024: Why it may be time for a boring Prime Minister after Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak

Fortune may favour the bold, but history favours the boring. Well, certainly, British politics does

Most, if not everyone, agrees a British general election is imminent. According to some sources, May is now the most probable bet.

While the dividing lines between the Conservatives and Labour might be clear, the differences between the two men vying to be the next Prime Minister are much more nebulous.

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Repeated polling shows the country doesn't like Rishi Sunak, but neither does it conclusively say what they do like about Keir Starmer. Polling over the past 24 months is clear – the Tories are expected to lose because of their record in government, not because a Labour alternative has shown them up or presented a "vision thing".

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. Picture: Getty ImagesLabour leader Sir Keir Starmer. Picture: Getty Images
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. Picture: Getty Images

The 2024 vote feels like a denouement election. Low to moderate voter favourability towards future prime ministers is not inspiring: even anecdotally, a pervasive feeling of distrust in politicians has turned into utter loathing for the too-polished, buzzword-spouting, double-negative twisting, too-cool-for-school demeanour that Mr Sunak and others deploy.

This election could well be the last to headline the carbon copy, factory-made politicians of the previous 30 years who are too out of touch are now out of time.

Starmer is on the fence. Polling confirms people do not understand what he stands for, nor is he a cynical chip off the political block. Some lament the absence of a Blair-esque sparkle, saying he is closer to a dour Brownite. As moral, decent and honourable as he purports to be, the Labour leader is boring. And that could be the saving grace of British politics.

Week after week, the former director of public prosecutions in England and Wales stands up and speaks. Beyond the job title, it still feels impossible to recall personal information, his wife's name, general trivia, or even the kind of belittling anecdotes that usually follow senior politicians.

Prime minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street. Picture: Victoria Jones/PA WirePrime minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street. Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Prime minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street. Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

There is no punch line, no anchoring rumour of malfeasance. It is the most remarkable thing when once we had libraries of Winston Churchill anecdotes – real or otherwise – right through to the graphic stories about Boris Johnson's personal and professional life, to say nothing of the first thing that still comes to mind about David Cameron.

In 2022, Starmer reportedly urged his shadow cabinet to stop briefing the press that he was boring, warning them in predictability unpithy fashion that "what's boring is being in opposition". He is not alone – shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves was famously derided by a TV executive as "boring, snoring".

Starmer might be self-conscious of the bland moniker, but he should take heart – British prime ministers come in pairs.

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Whether by election or succession, if you run a finger down the list of PMs, starting with Winston Churchill's caretaker government in 1945, the pattern is undoubtedly ‘interesting/boring’. But that does not mean they were not effective, for good or for ill. It may not be very academic and even a bit puerile, but it is stoically accurate.

Churchill's coalition deputy, Clement Attlee, famously usurped him and won the 1945 general election. "A sheep in sheep's clothing”, the Labour leader had campaigned on a domestic agenda, including creating the National Health Service, full employment and tackling demobilisation.

Churchill returned to office again in 1951 not because of the ageing war leader's gusto, but because the Labour Party put into motion nearly all its 1945 manifesto pledges, leaving the party directionless. The burgeoning Cold War, and hiding debilitating strokes, made for a fascinating last act.

Anthony Eden's complicated addiction to stimulants for chronic pain contributed to the catastrophic Suez Crisis. Domestic policy played second fiddle because Eden had never held a domestic portfolio and had little experience in economic matters. He nevertheless presided over the lowest unemployment figures of the post-Second World War era.

The Churchill-Attlee-Churchill-Eden pattern is indicative. Accomplishments of 'unremarkable' and 'boring' prime ministers like Ted Heath (who took the UK into membership of the European Economic Community), Jim Callaghan (who achieved the settlement of the IMF crisis), John Major (who initiated the Northern Ireland peace process) or Gordon Brown (who introduced the Equality Act 2010) will always fall under the shadow of more magnetic predecessors.

Decades of 'successful' politicians trying to be all things to all men usually end in disappointment. Tony Blair could lavishly toast Champagne socialism one minute before looking 'authentic' with fish and chips the next. If attempted now, that electoral malleability would be dismissed as a cynical, patronising and unsubstantial parlour trick.

Interesting does not mean better, and boring does not mean uninventive. In a Times Radio podcast, former spin doctor Peter Mandelson decried the decline in "tie power" among politicians before fat-shaming Starmer. The superficiality of the Blair era is not something to hark back to, and certainly not something Starmer should aspire to if he wants a transactional, new deal with a weary electorate.

Times cartoonist Peter Brookes drew "Sir Buzz Starmer", who "will bore you to infinity and beyond!" Labour strategists may lament the sticking power of Starmer trivia. Still, that gap is where he can shine – decades of polished political razzmatazz presume the electorate is too stupid to see the lie.

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Starmer must lean into his dullness if he wants to win the next election. Dull should come to mean authentic. Labour is already deploying very few buzzwords, soundbites and another cynical accoutrement of elections. Labour should be the party of quiet confidence, of substance over style. Starmer should be the numbers man who says it straight and restores a human quality to back No. 10.

At the very least, let's get a bit of normal back into politics before ‘normal’ becomes a distant memory behind populism and "lies, damned lies, and statistics".

- Alastair GJ Stewart is a freelance columnist and political commentator. He works in public relations



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