Keir Starmer must be unable to believe his luck. The report of a commission set up by a Labour government found that the Labour Party had broken the law by failing to tackle antisemitism effectively. He was going to have to make a statement and defend himself against questions from journalists about why he had stayed in the shadow cabinet at the time, and why he hadn’t done more to keep the party within the law.
He was asked those questions, as it happened, but most journalists wanted to know what he would do about Jeremy Corbyn, who had issued a statement of his own just before Starmer’s. The former leader adopted a defiant tone, condemning antisemitism but adding a “but” – “but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party”.
This put him directly at odds with Starmer, who said that anyone suggesting the problem of antisemitism was exaggerated should be “nowhere near the Labour Party”. Which meant that, instead of having to explain why he had stayed close to Corbyn all that time, Starmer had to fend off questions about why Corbyn was still somewhere near the Labour Party.
An hour later, Corbyn was suddenly a bit further away, having been suspended from the party, and the story was all about him and the new outbreak of Labour’s perpetual civil war. If Corbyn had done the political thing, and accepted the findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the pressure would have been on Starmer to explain how he was going to atone for the collective sins of the past.
Instead, Corbyn managed to make Starmer look like a strong leader. Even though Starmer didn’t make the decision to suspend the former leader, the effect was to separate himself decisively from the party’s recent failure, including its worst election result since 1935, all of which could be hung around Corbyn’s neck. Starmer’s role in Corbyn’s leadership team has been wiped from the record, including his advocacy of a second Brexit referendum that left the party facing both ways in the election.
The Corbynites have responded to the crisis with all the discipline and unity of a herd of cats. The more political of them don’t want to disown Jeremy, but they think that he, and they, should say what they have to say to retain their influence in the party. They know that spending the next few years fighting a campaign against a “witch hunt” guarantees their irrelevance. Making their stand on the slogan, “We’ve been misunderstood on antisemitism you know,” is not going to restore the glory years of 2015-17.
One by one, the Corbynites have been withdrawing from Starmer’s shadow ministerial team. Rebecca Long-Bailey was the most important, but in recent weeks she has been joined by Dan Carden, Margaret Greenwood and a number of new MPs from outside the shadow cabinet. Now Corbyn himself has put himself at the front of this long, withdrawing roar of the sea of faith.
Just as his enemies scatter themselves behind him, Starmer finds that the opponent in front of him is waving the white flag. Boris Johnson, having derided the Labour leader only last week for proposing a “disastrous” national lockdown, is poised to announce precisely that. When Starmer first suggested a circuit-breaker, a two- or three-week temporary lockdown to reverse the spread of coronavirus, some Conservative MPs were privately pleased, because they thought that would make it too embarrassing for the prime minister to adopt what was now the opposition’s policy.
It seems that the scientists on the government’s advisory group have forced Johnson’s hand. He cannot allow any of them to resign, having said he is “following the science”. However he dresses it up, he will in effect be following Starmer’s lead, three weeks later. Once again, Starmer will start up the refrain about Johnson being too slow, and incompetent. This time, there will be no “Captain Hindsight” about it: Starmer stood at a lectern with “A New Leadership” written on it on 13 October and called for an immediate circuit breaker. He has been vindicated.
The skirmish with Corbyn was a blip that had to be managed; this, by contrast, is the kind of decision that will define Starmer’s leadership.
Then there is the third whammy. Starmer looks set for a fair wind from across the Atlantic when America starts counting the votes – most of which have already been cast – on Tuesday. Joe Biden is only 5 percentage points ahead of Donald Trump in Pennsylvania, the state he needs to win if he is to make it to the White House (and the state in which Biden was born and lived for the first 10 years of his life), but even if the opinion polls are as wrong as they were four years ago, that would mean a Biden victory.
And a Biden victory would be a boost for Starmer. We shouldn’t overdo it. It is only American politics; and only a world-historical moment that would make the Trump presidency seem like a dreamlike aberration. But Brexit pushed Boris Johnson into Trump’s camp. Desperate as the prime minister might be behind the scenes to persuade the Biden team that a British liberal Conservative is really a kind of Democrat, my guess is that it will not wash.
Of course, Biden will observe the proprieties. But I would not be surprised if Starmer finds that his access to the transition team preparing for the new president’s inauguration in January is at least as good as Johnson’s.
We shouldn’t overdo it, but the aura that surrounds a Labour leader who enjoys a good relationship with a Democratic president is almost tangible.
These few days – distancing himself from his troublesome predecessor, securing a tactical victory over the prime minister, and building his credibility abroad – could be the making of Keir Starmer’s leadership.