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Since 1980, two people, Tony Blair and David Cameron, have attained the office of UK prime minister at a general election. All the other premiers in that time first got the job as a result of wrangling within their parties in parliament. So if, as polls suggest, voters send Sir Keir Starmer straight from opposition to Downing Street next year, he will be in a class of three over a period of 44 years.

Even this understates the achievement. Blair and Cameron took over parties that were already competitive. Starmer’s was on a plausible course to extinction. When he became Labour leader in April 2020, the Conservatives had a 22-point poll lead. He himself was a joke figure well into 2021. (Tuning in now and then from Washington, I found the disdain for him almost as vicious as anything in US politics.)

Now? Labour is the probable next government. At worst, it will come very close. Outside Microsoft and Arsenal Football Club, I am at a loss to name an institutional turnaround in recent times so dramatic.

Yet so uncredited. From those who didn’t see Labour’s resurgence coming, there is always a quibble. One is that he got lucky. Come on. He lost the first 18 months of his leadership to a pandemic that made the opposition irrelevant. Also, he had built a double-digit poll lead before Liz Truss immolated the Tories’ reputation for economic management in last autumn’s “mini” Budget.

The other knock is that he lacks a clear vision for Britain. Prepare for a year of ChatGPT2-grade discourse on this theme (“Will the real Keir Starmer please stand up?”). The problem with this line is that it is said of all incoming premiers, including Blair in 1997, whatever the determination of the national folk memory to remember otherwise. “Come this way for a vague new world,” is one representative headline about Blair from that election campaign. The idea that Starmer is uniquely smoke-screening his way to power is ahistorical.

Why is he so under-sung, then? Well, he doesn’t have a “people”. The Labour right mistrust him for going along with the Jeremy Corbyn project until the end. The left hate him for his methodical destruction of them ever since. As a latecomer to politics (he entered parliament at 52, having never worked as a gopher), he strikes people in that insular world, who are often lifers, as alien.

Socially, even, he is hard to place. He is Oxbridge, but also not. He grew up in a working-class home, but in the affluent commuter belt. Where he comes from, the non-London south of England, can be hazy in the mind’s eye of the rest of the country. Northerners sometimes conflate it with London, with which it in fact has a tense relationship, as the Brexit vote bore out.

This personal indistinctness is useful. It allows Starmer to fathom a nation in which lots of people have ambiguous and changing identities. But it also means that no tribe regards him as theirs. He has no equivalent of the self-made suburbanites who swore by Thatcher, or the post-cold war generation for whom Blair represented deliverance from a stale past. If his political wins don’t elicit due praise, it is because no group feels he is winning for them.

There is another reason he is sold short. In the smallness of his plans, Starmer reminds people how limited Britain’s options are. The nation’s public debt now exceeds its gross domestic product. On one projection, the tax burden is going to reach a postwar high in the next parliament. When a government tried to borrow more for immediate purposes — those tax cuts — the financial markets revolted. The population is ageing, with all that implies for healthcare and pension liabilities. As for reform, Truss, though she continues to buff and polish that brass neck of hers, wasn’t wrong that Nimbys and public sector unions stand in the way.

At each turn, then, the next government, and perhaps the one after that, will be hemmed in. What is this grand vision for change that Starmer keeps being asked to set out? There isn’t one. There can’t be one. And that, more than anything, is what irks people. Disappointment with Starmer is, in the end, a sublimation of disappointment with Britain.

It is far from clear that he should be prime minister. Had Corbyn won, Starmer would be in his cabinet. That, for now, is too much to put out of one’s mind, let alone forgive. But his worthiness for the office is another column. That he is in contention at all is up there with Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise of Emmanuel Macron as the democratic feat of the past decade.


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