You may come across someone gazing with nostalgia-moistened eyes at a picture of Jeremy Corbyn when he was leader of the Labour party. This could be one of the small but noisy gang of continuity Corbynites who even now try to defend the toxic record on antisemitism when he and his clique had charge of the party.
Alternatively, our Corbyn nostalgic could be a Tory. Indeed, those with wistful memories of his leadership are very much more likely to be Tories.
The number of people in the Labour party attached to Mr Corbyn fell sharply after he led them to a crushing election defeat and has been steadily diminishing since. Even many of those on the left who liked his personality and cheered for his policies were repulsed in the end by the horrible stuff that accompanied his regime, more grisly details to come when the Equality and Human Rights Commission publishes its report into institutional racism within Corbyn Labour.
By contrast with the dwindling affection for him in the party that he once led, the Tory party is missing him badly. To Conservatives, he was the gift that kept on giving. On national security, on economic credibility, on plausibility as a candidate for the premiership, he supplied them with an embarrassment of ammunition with which to assault Labour. With the result that the party’s share of parliamentary seats collapsed to its lowest level since 1935 and the Conservatives grabbed their best majority since 1987.
This has made the Tories lazy. They barely had to get out of bed to discredit Labour under Mr Corbyn because most of the work was done for them by Labour’s own leadership. Tories became complacently accustomed to having an opponent who was so easy to attack that it required little effort, intelligence or craft. Now they face a much more capable and substantial opponent in the shape of Sir Keir Starmer – and they are palpably struggling to get a handle on him. He has thus far eluded their varied attempts to make him look bad.
When he was chosen as Labour leader, the first thought among Tory strategists was to negatively define Mr Starmer as a metropolitan Remoaner. It is true that he lives in north London. It is also true that he made his name as a frontbencher and gained admiration within his party during the bitter battles over Brexit in the last parliament. But it is further true that he is smart enough to spot an elephant trap, especially one marked with a flashing neon sign saying “elephant trap”. Knowing that the Tories wanted to pin him on a battleground that had already been lost, Mr Starmer has almost entirely avoided talking about Brexit since he became Labour leader. If my memory serves me correctly, he has not once made it his subject at prime minister’s questions. I’m sure he’ll get back to it eventually, especially if Britain crashes out of the single market without a free trade agreement, but he has avoided being defined by past positions on Brexit.
Another Tory thought was to portray him as life-sappingly boring. One senior Conservative, who is usually an astute reader of the political landscape, told me confidently that Labour had made a fatal mistake and would have been better off choosing Lisa Nandy. “Starmer is a tremendously dull, incredibly tedious, extremely wooden lawyer,” this Tory told me. He would never be preferred by the British people over the “effervescent charisma” of Boris Johnson.
The coronavirus has shredded that calculation, pitilessly exposing the limitations of the flippant performative politics personified by the prime minister. At the same time, the crisis seems to have reawakened an appetite in at least some of the public for seriousness in their politicians, and no one doubts that the Labour leader is a serious kind of guy. The senior Tory I referred to a moment ago has now changed his mind. When I spoke to him recently, he thought that the crisis had “found out” Mr Johnson as an inferior leader and made Mr Starmer’s sober style a lot more attractive to the public. The polls suggest that the country is thinking the same way, with the Labour leader now besting his opponent on competence and many of the other key qualities that people look for in a prime minister. It is a remarkable shift in the climate that nearly every Labour MP thinks Mr Starmer will take them into the next election, while a growing number of Tory MPs believe they will have a different leader by then.
This turn of events, unanticipated by Downing Street, is causing consternation in Number 10, which has been floundering around trying to get purchase on the Labour leader. Mr Johnson likes to have a go at the former director of public prosecutions for being a lawyer. “He has got more briefs than Calvin Klein” was a pre-cooked crack that the Tory leader brought to a recent encounter between the two men, a joke that doesn’t get any better with the retelling. Lawyers are not terribly popular with the general public, but then neither is Mr Johnson’s former profession of journalism. Nothing in the polling suggests that the voters hold being a QC against the Labour leader.
The Tory leader has also tried painting his opponent as an opportunist, which takes a species of gall that only someone as shameless as Mr Johnson can muster. “He has more flip-flops than Bournemouth beach”, a gag that is even worse written down, was his entry for the World’s Lamest Political Jibe at the final question time before the summer recess. Mr Starmer may not have been spotlessly uncontradictory about everything, but the last person qualified to make an accusation of inconsistency is a prime minister who has repeatedly flipped his flops during the coronavirus crisis, on everything from lockdown to hand-shaking to testing for infection to quarantines to the mandatory wearing of face coverings.
There was an illustration of how much the Tories miss the easy days against Labour when everyone finally got sight of the report into Russian penetration of British public life and the government’s lack of interest in Moscow’s subversion of our democratic processes. Trying to revive the Corbyn bogey, Mr Johnson claimed that Mr Starmer shared his predecessor’s reluctance to hold the Russian government responsible for the Salisbury poisonings. This backfired because the Labour leader did condemn the assassination attempt at the time and both then and now it is clear that he is no apologist for the Kremlin. The attempt to taint him by association with his predecessor instead gifted Mr Starmer the opportunity to declare that Labour is “under new management”.
It may be that the Tories will eventually alight on a line of attack that rings sufficiently true to hurt the Labour leader, but it is positive news for him that they are so far flailing. Eluding the attempts of the other side to define you negatively is often a sign of a successful opposition leader. A member of Gordon Brown’s team recently recalled to me that they had “endless fruitless meetings in Gordon’s war room” trying to find a formula to diminish David Cameron in the run-up to the 2010 election. Calling the then opposition leader “inexperienced” only drew attention to how long Mr Brown had been around. Depicting the Conservative leader as “a chameleon” conceded that the Tories were capable of changing. Mr Cameron became prime minister.
Before Tony Blair secured his Labour win in 1997, the Tories couldn’t make up their minds whether to depict him as naive (“Bambi”) or evil (“Demon eyes”). Neither claim had credibility with the voters and the Tories just made themselves look frantic and ridiculous. Mr Blair secured a landslide.
This is not to say – far from it – that Mr Starmer can take the next election for granted. Labour requires a mammoth swing to win. Most of the shadow cabinet are barely known by the voters. He has yet to say anything specific about policy, and big choices about an economic agenda are unmade. While the leader’s personal ratings look good, the public have a dimmer view of his party, which continues to trail behind the Tories. The Labour brand has been deeply damaged in recent years and it will take a lot more work to reverse that.
What we can say is that the Conservatives are struggling to pin a wounding label on Sir Keir Starmer. That is encouraging for Labour and disconcerting for Tories. How they pine for his predecessor.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer