January 5, 2022 - 3:51pm

At the end of 2021, the consensus was that Boris Johnson was in deep trouble. Keir Starmer, on the other hand, was in a stronger position than at any time since he became Labour leader. 

But after Starmer’s big speech yesterday, I’m not so sure. For a start he fumbled his lines. At one point he struggled to remember the third of the three values that the speech was all about — “security, prosperity and um er um and er er [nervous sip of water] um and respect”. 


But the problem wasn’t just with the delivery. The content was weak too. Instead of providing positive reasons to vote Labour, it was more about removing negative reasons not to. Starmer said he was “proud” (or “ploughed” as he pronounced it) to stand in front of the Union Jack, but why on Earth wouldn’t he be?

It’s as if Starmer’s entire strategy depends on Johnson’s continued self-sabotage. Obviously, there’s been plenty of that lately — but like most things associated with the Prime Minister it can’t be relied upon. 

If there’s no more scandal and if Britain rides out the Omicron wave with comparative success, then Conservative fortunes could revive. Those are big ifs, of course — but there’s little that Starmer can do to influence them. His position is therefore more fragile than appearances suggest.

Before last year’s Tory meltdown, Labour was trailing in the polls. Starmer had to show he was capable of catching up — but the deadline for doing so was hazy. There was no defined make-or-break point for his leadership.

But now there is. Labour has a lead in the polls. To have any hope of winning the next general election the party must keep out in front. Losing the lead would be more dangerous for Starmer than if he’d never gained it. 

The first poll of the year, from Redfield and Wilton, appears to show the Conservatives getting off the floor: 

Obviously, it’s just one poll. But the next few months will be a bigger test for Starmer than most Westminster pundits are allowing for. The point of maximum danger will be in the aftermath of the local elections in May. If the results are disappointing for Labour, then there’d be no better opportunity for a leadership challenge. 

At the mid point of a five-year parliament, it wouldn’t be too late to give a new leader a chance. And for the first time in years, there are plausible alternatives for the party to choose from: Yvette Cooper is back on the frontline of politics; Rachel Reeves has impressed as Shadow Chancellor; Wes Streeting’s star is in the ascendancy.

Up to this point, Starmer has had time to play for and room for error. But no longer. His next slip could be his last. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.