Toby Neal: Sir Keir must reach out but some policies would be nice

Crack open the bubbly! Put out the bunting! Order new wallpaper!

A 30ft inflatable Boris Johnson erected outside Mill House Leisure Centre in Hartlepool
A 30ft inflatable Boris Johnson erected outside Mill House Leisure Centre in Hartlepool

The jubilation in Downing Street knows no bounds.

Everything Boris touches turns to blond. He just can’t stop winning elections.

He’s like Tigger, bouncing above everything.

Boris is a liar? Boing! Boris leaps clear with one Tiggerish bound. Boris is a racist? Boing! Boris is comparable to Hitler and the Nazis (one of David Lammy’s charges)? Boing!

For one politician to call another a liar always comes over as somewhat ironic. So here’s the question: Could it be that some British voters think that Boris Johnson is fundamentally the most truthful and trustworthy politician of modern times?

David Niven said of Errol Flynn: “The thing about Errol is that you always knew where you stood with him – you always knew that he would let you down.”

With Boris, voters seem to know where they stand – and accept it. What other conclusion can be reached from the Hartlepool by-election result?

It’s like the day years ago my late mum went to an auction in Broseley. Not really her thing, but she bid for a teapot – and won it. When we got home, we found that the spout was blocked off from the pot. Her reaction? Not anger – she thought it was funny. We filled it with compost and put a plant in it.

For Labour, Hartlepool is a double disaster. Maybe that’s underestimating things. It’s a treble disaster, a quadruple disaster.

They have changed the dummy in the shop window, but they have forgotten that they need to stock the shop.

The whole point of electing Sir Keir Starmer as leader was to make Labour more electable. Yet after over a year in the job in which he has looked like a Prime Minister without actually being a Prime Minister, the party’s reward has been a by-election defeat which is quite conceivably worse than it would have suffered if Jeremy Corbyn was still leader.

Agony

Sir Keir gave a radio interview during the week that I listened to, and afterwards was left wondering: Who is he speaking to? And who is he speaking for?

John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, put his finger on it when he said that Labour’s candidate had gone naked into the campaign, by which he meant there were no distinct Labour policies.

That is not a charge which could have been levelled against Jezza and John at the 2019 general election. Labour was brimming with ideas and initiatives. The extent to which these were decisively rejected by the voters is a matter for debate, and that debate will be part of Labour’s agony in coming months.

The trouble for Labour is not just that it is losing elections, but that it hasn’t really got a handle on why it is losing them. In 2019 there were factors which cloud the issue. For many voters Jeremy Corbyn was undoubtedly unpopular and scared the horses.

And then there was Labour’s policy on Brexit, a truly mindblowing piece of artistry and clever-cleverness devised by Sir Keir to hold the disparate Labour factions together and to be all things to all people. Too clever by half, it turned out.

That might in fact be one of the problems Sir Keir has. Voters go for charisma over cleverness.

Another is the peculiar circumstances. He is up against the most Communist Tory government in history, all draconian state control and free-spending. The drains are full of public money. And then there’s Rishi Sunak’s fraud-friendly furlough scheme in which the numbers of people on furlough are greater than the entire population of China.

The highly successful vaccination programme is the last big thing that’s happened, and people in the polling booths most readily remember the last big thing that’s happened.

An incidental fact is that Hartlepool United are nicknamed ‘the monkey hangers’ after the story that during the Napoleonic Wars the people of Hartlepool tried and executed a monkey on the grounds that it was a French spy.

The tenuous relevance is that Hartlepool is a long way from London. London loves Sir Keir. London hates Boris.

But London is not the United Kingdom. Sir Keir has some reaching out to do. Some policies wouldn’t go amiss either.

He’s still got time but the clock is ticking. Otherwise he might be joining somebody on an allotment.

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