Just how can Boris Johnson come out smelling of roses after all the truth twisting and rule-breaking chaos he has presided over since becoming British Prime Minister? And is there anything Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and the Opposition can do about it?

I know they used to say worse things about ex-American president Donald Trump – but just how does Boris Johnson get away with being “not just the most incompetent and lazy incumbent of the greatest office of state but someone who lies as easily as he takes breadth?”

From the same mould: Boris Johnson meets Donald Trump at the UN. Image:NPR

Not my words about the current UK Prime Minister but those of ex-Tory minister Anna Soubry, who served in David Cameron’s Conservative government, writing in the Independent newspaper a day after Labour lost the Hartlepool by-election.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and his shadow cabinet must be exhausted trying and failing to land knockout blows on one the most slippery characters ever to rise to the top of the pile in British politics.

 Johnson struck lucky with Brexit chaos

Part of the answer is that like Trump in the United States, Johnson was under-estimated by the political elite and struck lucky by exploiting the Brexit chaos following the 2016 referendum. Somehow, he has also managed to get the benefit of the doubt so far among his supporters despite repeated mishandling of the coronavirus crisis.

Trump famously told a rally in Iowa when first running to win the Republican Party nomination for President of the United States that he could stand on New York’s Fifth Avenue “and shoot somebody” and still not lose votes.

Johnson is of the same ilk, coming to power with a similar divisive nationalist claim that only he could overturn a political establishment that was holding the country back.

Just as ‘Make America Great’ worked a treat for Trump in the US, a majority in England fell for Johnson’s patter after in-fighting among Tory MPs prevented former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May getting her favoured version of an EU withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons.

The cleverly crafted “Get Brexit Done” campaign message was a masterpiece in political marketing, as I acknowledged in a blog back in December 2020 when Boris Johnson swept to power two years ago with a stonking majority – thanks in part to a collapse of support for Labour across the Midlands and North of England and his unconventional image, as Sky News illustrated on his second anniversary of becoming prime minster.

Labour mistakes 

Labour’s biggest mistake was not in electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader, who admittedly proved unpopular among many traditional working-class northern male voters at the last (Brexit) general election – the very ‘blue-collar’ voters that Trump also targeted in the USA.

I think an even bigger drawback was the Labour Party failing to have a coherent alternative to the ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan, dreamed up by the mastermind of the original Brexit referendum campaign – the very same Dominic Cummings who has now turned with a vengeance against Johnson.

BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg interviews Dominic Cummings

That Cummings, the Prime Minister’s former chief political adviser, is now spilling the beans after seeing at close range how disastrously Johnson handled the COVID-19 crisis may dent the Tory opinion poll lead.

But not everyone is interested or listening to Cummings, whose claim to fame is breaking the first Covid lockdown with his drive from London to Durham and Barnard Castle.

Watching his interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg the other night confirmed my view of Cummings as the Rasputin, or Mad Monk, to the crazy Czar Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johns to give our Prime Minister his proper name.

Why is Starmer not scoring open goals?

So, why if things are so chaotic in Downing Street is Labour under Keir Starmer’s leadership not scoring more open goals and winning back voters, especially in its northern heartlands?

The answer appears to be that voters don’t know what the Labour Party led by Starmer stands for or what it would have done differently to Johnson’s Conservative government in leading the country out of the greatest peacetime challenge in living memory with the Coronavirus crisis.

It is not just opponents, like Patrick O’Flynn, former Member of the European Parliament and now political editor of the Daily Express, who say this.

Labour’s own deputy leader, the fiery socialist MP for Ashton-under-Lyne Angela Rayner, has also said that voters did know what Starmer stood for in the recent elections.

In an interview with the Independent, Rayner said voters wanted to know what the Labour Party was going to do for them and suggested Labour had in the past got the “tone wrong” and sounded patronising to voters.

This isn’t just a problem with Starmer’s courtroom examination style, mastered while he was director of public prosecutions, which worked well when he cross-examined Johnson’s failures after COVID-19 first struck the UK last year and nearly overwhelmed the National Health Service.

It is a longer-term challenge as Britain’s heavy and union-organised industrialised base has declined and Labour members are now more likely to be graduates working in London than steel workers on Teesside. 

Starmer, like the previous Labour leader, is a North London inner-city MP and his message doesn’t seem to be cutting through to enough traditional Labour voters in regions like North East England.

Hard to cut through in the Covid crisis

It is clearly a hard act being the Leader of the Opposition while the country is being urged to pull-together to fight the coronavirus and Starmer’s apparent lack of passion reminds me more of John Major than a Neil Kinnock, who did the groundwork for the last big modernisation of the Labour Party and eventual election of Tony Blair as prime minister.

Yes, Starmer is doing a reasonable job pointing out where the Johnson government is getting things seriously wrong with the pandemic, but Labour needs to be clearer how it would do things differently, as has actually happened in Labour-run Wales.

Just opposing isn’t enough to win back voters’ trust. Starmer and the Labour leadership need to present a clear and attractive alternative.

Sharpen up communications

They need to come clean. And they’ve got to do this in the era of the five-second attention span and not with vague pledges. 

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy doing a good job for Keir Starmer

Starmer should make better use of his team, which includes some good political players like Angela Rayner and Lisa Nandy, and engage with voters who are fed up to their back teeth with politics and politicians. 

He needs to sharpen Labour’s communications and get his key message across in three or four little words, such as Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ or Tony Blair’s ‘Education, Education, Education’.

PR practitioners are drilled in using no more than three things at once to get your message across to your target audience and Starmer needs to present Labour’s alternative in a clear, understandable and attractive way.

Avoid nonsense slogans such as ‘Strong and Stable’ which undid Theresa May after parliamentary Brexit deadlock forced her to call a general election which Jeremy Corbyn nearly won.

Lance the Brexit boil

And lance the Brexit boil! I don’t believe a second referendum is going to happen any time soon and even if it did, I am not sure the outcome would be different as some former Remainers I know wouldn’t vote to join the EU.

Labour needs to listen to the likes of shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy who wants to end the Labour Party’s fudge on Brexit. We don’t need to fight the next election on Johnson’s chosen ground and remember Labour MPs were actually whipped in the end to back Brexit to avoid a ‘No-deal’ scenario.

Let Johnson’s own Brexit deal unravel, as it is already doing in Northern Ireland, and stand ready to work with other parties and international partners, including those in the EU, to rebuild a world knocked to bits by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Present a plan to build a better future, particularly for the young who have sacrificed so much during the pandemic, and maybe voters will start listening to Labour again. And as in the USA, voters here may see the light and kick Johnson and co out of office just as they booted Trump out of the White House.

+ Read Lisa Nandy’s interview with inews here for her vision for Labour renewal.

+ Main picutre: Labour leader Keir Starmer: Image:LabourList 

Further reading: Boris Johnson’s two years as PM: A casual relationship with the truth and a disdain for the rules, Jon Craig , Sky News, 24 July 2021

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