Never, since Ian Duncan Smith became Conservative leader two days after 9/11, has the election of a new Leader of the Opposition been so overshadowed by events. Coronavirus meant there was even less attention on Keir Starmer’s arrival than expected. The long Labour leadership contest started in early January, before Coronavirus had even been heard of. It bridged the gap not just between two leaders, but between two epochs.
As I write, both Labour’s poll ratings and Starmer’s leadership ratings are rising. The ineptitude and incompetence of the Johnson government’s response to Coronavirus becomes increasingly obvious. As it becomes embroiled in a political crisis entirely of its own making – Johnson’s refusal to sack Dominic Cummings for a flagrant breach of lockdown rules, giving a dangerous green light to the public to do the same – Starmer has shrewdly held back. Rather than issue shrill calls for resignations and enquiries, as Corbyn would have done, he has watched from a safe distance as a Tory civil war erupts over Johnson’s craven cowardice. Whether Cummings stay or goes, the government looks weaker by the day, as Starmer grows in stature.
Suddenly, Cummings’ contrarianism and wackiness are a liability for Johnson. His fixation with a “long march through the institutions”, disrupting here and creating chaos there, Is precisely what post-Coronavirus Britain doesn’t need. Starmer’s forensic questioning at PMQs – confrontations delayed by Johnson’s own brush with the virus – has swiftly shown Johnson to be a bumbling lightweight, whose nonchalance about care home deaths have been brutally exposed.