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Keir Starmer is not a leader of courage - but he may soon lead the UK

While Starmer is a more attractive proposition than Boris Johnson, he offers no sign of being able to steer us through these dangerous times
Labour leader Keir Starmer is pictured in his office on 30 April (Reuters)

You might have heard of the Peter principle, the tendency for people to rise to their “level of incompetence” in their given profession. The syndrome was first identified by management theorist Laurence J Peter.  

Nobody and nothing illustrates this principle as well as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He was an unusually talented newspaper columnist at the Daily Telegraph, an excellent editor at the Spectator magazine, and a half-decent mayor of London. 

But he is out of his depth as prime minister: sometimes unshaven, often incoherent, shallow, and with no mastery of detail. He is a moral and intellectual shambles - the Peter principle in action. The perfect case study. Laurence J Peter would be proud of him.

Again and again, Starmer takes the line of least resistance - the expedient position. He's not defining himself against Johnson. He's defining himself against Corbyn

This is why eyes are starting to turn towards Keir Starmer, leader of the British opposition Labour Party. Starmer starts off with one built-in advantage: he has the merit of not being Boris Johnson.

He’s dull, sober and super-cautious. He has yet to make a real mark. Yet, he has every chance of becoming the next British prime minister. 

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On issue after issue, he has failed to show courage, let alone leadership. Take the Covid-19 pandemic. Until this week, he has been happy to criticise what he calls the “failure of government”, while offering no real alternatives. 

He helped the government pass its most recent measures through the House of Commons. Take Johnson’s 10pm national curfew; Starmer asked Johnson for scientific evidence for the move, which the prime minister struggled to provide. And yet, Starmer later said Labour would not vote down the curfew. 

It was the same with the so-called Rule of Six, which prevented seven or more people from gathering. As Katy Balls caustically observed in the Spectator: “A Labour shadow health minister criticised it at the despatch box and then Labour abstained anyway.” Only this week, nine months into the pandemic, has Starmer at last broken with the consensus.

Antisemitism allegations

Then there’s the antisemitism issue, which Starmer inherited from former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer has been praised for taking a clear line. Indeed, he has displayed a ruthlessness that has been lacking in his treatment of Covid-19. 

Still, he has shown a lack of moral courage. The issue is much more complicated than how it is portrayed in the British mainstream media, where much of the reporting has been selective and misleading.

Starmer and former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speak in London in December 2019 (AFP)
Starmer and former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speak in London in December 2019 (AFP)

Labour’s internal report into antisemitism provides a mountain of evidence to challenge the charge that Corbyn undermined efforts to tackle antisemitism. It suggests, on the contrary, that the party’s inability to get to grips with the issue may have been in large measure due to the action of political opponents. 

True, the report was compiled while Corbyn was leader. But the evidence it compiled was compelling, and as far as I can tell, Starmer has shown no interest in finding out the truth about these claims. 

I can understand his reluctance. It would have enabled political opponents to damn him as indecisive or, worse still, as “Corbyn’s man”. But the morally correct approach would have been to find out the truth rather than take the politically advantageous strategy.

Prosecution for torture

There’s a pattern here. Take torture: The Overseas Operations Bill, currently going through the House of Commons, protects British armed forces from prosecution for torture and other human rights abuses committed more than five years ago. 

This marks a betrayal of the British reputation for decency and fairness, as has been pointed out by the former head of the armed forces, Field Marshal Charles Guthrie; former defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind; and former attorney-general Dominic Grieve, who all wrote to the government raising concerns about the bill.

Keir Starmer has every chance to become a future British prime minister
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Ian Cobain has written eloquently about this issue in Middle East Eye. But Labour under Starmer, a former human rights lawyer, has abstained from voting on this disreputable legislation. Indeed, Starmer sacked Nadia Whittome from her role as a parliamentary private secretary for voting against the bill. 

Or take the Covert Human Intelligence Sources bill which has been dubbed the “licence to kill” law by human rights campaigners. This led to a revolt last night when 34 Labour MPs defied the party whip to abstain and voted against the bill. Seven members of the front bench resigned over it.

Again and again, Starmer takes the line of least resistance - the expedient position. He’s not defining himself against Johnson. He’s defining himself against Corbyn.

We’ve seen this kind of caution before. Twenty-five years ago, former Prime Minister Tony Blair systematically mimicked his predecessor John Major’s policies, while defining himself against the Labour left. 

Like Blair, Starmer is making himself acceptable to the media and security establishment. He’s not challenged Johnson’s swerve towards authoritarianism. It’s a model that may well take him into Downing Street; that certainly seems to be the goal for Starmer, whose self-stated aim is to get his party “serious about winning”.

Parallels with Biden

The analogy with US Democratic candidate Joe Biden is striking. Biden is a dim, risk-averse candidate - but for all his mediocrity, he is a more attractive proposition than President Donald Trump. 

Starmer, like Biden, offers no sign of being able to provide the leadership needed in these dangerous times

Likewise, Starmer may be unexciting, but he is not a serial liar like Johnson. The worry is that Britain - and the world - are entering a period of terrible crisis on a momentous scale not seen since the 1930s. We face the threat of economic collapse, national disintegration and global disorder.

Starmer, like Biden, offers no sign of being able to provide the leadership needed in these dangerous times. Biden feels like a return to the dead, calculated politics of former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Starmer like another version of Blair. 

Both are better - far better - than the alternative. But both look vulnerable to getting swept away with the tide of events.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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