Starmer should strike the beast repeatedly and talk of nothing but Tory sleaze - Euan McColm

We live in an era dominated by politicians who got to the top by persuading voters they aren’t like those who came before them.

Public dissatisfaction with the political “establishment” - hastened by major issues such as war in Iraq, the global financial crisis of 2007, and the MPs’ expenses scandal - created a space in our discourse for opportunists who sold themselves as outsiders.

In Scotland, that meant a new platform for the SNP with a promise to make politics more decent and fairer. South of the border, chancers like former UKIP leader Nigel Farage found they were cutting through to voters who’d once have written his party off as a home for cranks.

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Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer attends guest reception at Marlborough House to launch the Queen's Baton Relay at Marlborough House on October 07. Picture: Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty ImagesLabour Leader Sir Keir Starmer attends guest reception at Marlborough House to launch the Queen's Baton Relay at Marlborough House on October 07. Picture: Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images
Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer attends guest reception at Marlborough House to launch the Queen's Baton Relay at Marlborough House on October 07. Picture: Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images
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But no British politician has been more successful in exploiting dissatisfaction with the “old politics” than Boris Johnson, a man who makes an art out of being what his supporters want him to be, regardless of what that is. Thus, he won the London Mayoral elections in 2008 and 2012 by styling himself a socially liberal politician of the centre ground who a substantial number of Labour voters could feel comfortable supporting. Once London had served its purpose, Johnson became leader of the Little Englanders. He surfed a wave of anti-European Union sentiment that had been generated by Farage over the preceding years.

Johnson’s transformation was, in keeping with the man’s character, grimly cynical. His decision to take a leading role in the Leave campaign in 2016 had nothing to do with belief that departure from the EU would be in the UK’s best interests and everything to do with his calculation that this was a likely route to 10 Downing Street.

After becoming Prime Minister, Johnson cultivated the image of renegade, fighting dark forces - the EU - to deliver the Brexit Britain deserved (our former partners in the European project may think this is precisely what happened).

Brexit is done, now, and Johnson is being judged by voters on other matters. In the process, the illusion that Johnson is a different kind of politician has been shattered.

The fall-out from the Owen Paterson affair - when Johnson railroaded through the Commons a review of standards procedures that would have halted a 30-day suspension handed to the MP for breaking rules on lobbying - continues to be felt.

Several Conservative MPs have complained to whips and ministers about being compelled to vote for the measure and then hung out to dry when the Government was forced to U-turn.

The threat to Johnson doesn’t, for now, come from those MPs. The Prime Minister is vulnerable to public opinion.

The Paterson scandal has - despite laughable claims from some Johnson allies that it's a “storm in a teacup” - cut through to the public.

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Had Johnson not tried to nobble Paterson’s suspension, the matter would have been old news within hours. Instead, he left himself open to the charge that his is a corrupt government. Within days of the Paterson U-turn, the Tories were facing questions about the fact that 15 former treasurers, who had each donated more than £3million to the party, had been given seats in the House of Lords.

And then there were the questions about MPs with second jobs, such as Sir Geoffrey Cox who spent time working on his second job as a lawyer in the British Virgin Islands earlier this year. Was this sort of thing acceptable?

Johnson seems not to realise this damage all of this may cause. He has blundered through the week, dismissive of the concerns of voters and his own MPs.

Johnson has trashed his own reputation for no good reason.

An opinion poll by Savanta ComRes published this week showed Labour with a six-point lead over the Tories. The company’s previous poll, before the Paterson affair blew up, gave the Conservatives a three-point lead.

That is just one, poll, of course, but it will have sent a shiver through the spines of those Tory MPs who possess them.

In the 1990s, the Conservative Party became so relentlessly bogged down in sleaze scandals that swathes of its supporters switched their allegiance to Labour which was promising a new kind of politics (there is, of course, no such thing as a new kind of politics. The promise of a new kind of politics is one of the oldest tricks in the book of old politics).

Brexit-backing voters in England who thought Johnson was on their side now have ample proof he is in it for himself and his cronies.

For the Labour Party, this is quite the cow’s arse and banjo moment. Opposition leader Keir Starmer should strike the beast repeatedly.

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While the naked emperor waffles and blusters his way through the septic tank into which he has thrown himself, Starmer should talk of nothing but Tory sleaze. He should hark back to scandals of the past and - with truth on his side - make the charge that this Prime Minister has established a new low for behaviour in public office.

The test for Starmer is not a difficult one. If he is unable to make political capital of the Tories’ woes then it may be he is not cut out for the job.

If Labour can maintain a decent lead in subsequent polls, those Tory MPs currently smarting over the Paterson scandal may find their patience running thin.

It has been said of the Tory parliamentary group that it’s fiercely loyal to the leader right up until the moment that it isn’t.

If Johnson can’t shut down the scandal he created, he may learn the truth of that.

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