The real problem for Keir Starmer is that he has never had to be a kick in the groin, gouge out their eye balls and piss the sockets politician. He only entered the Commons in 2015 and found himself catapulted into the seventh circle of hell as a prominent member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, which must have been like stepping into a Kafka plot without a script. His priorities as leader were to make his party function as a political organisation, throw the Corbynista’s out of the balloon and root out anti semitism with zero tolerance. And in his spare time, perhaps give Johnson a bit of a kicking. In all of these he has been successful. But then he had his wobbly Wednesday. Sick to death of watching Johnson, bluster and blatantly lie and taunt at the despatch box he threw his toys out the pram after PMQS and if witnesses can be relied on (this is the Commons remember), had a serious pop at the PM. The trouble was that Starmer was on shaky ground and had to do a bit of nifty footwork. It didn’t do much for his confidence. These things never do. In politics confidence is everything. It’s best to know how to fake it.
Then late one night as Starmer was forlornly staring into a large glass of Jamesons, a gothic gloom and an eerie chill descended upon Dun Robing, followed by a flash of lightening, a deafening crack of thunder and a rustle of wings. Peter Mandelson had slithered back into political existence.
I don’t pretend to like Peter as I have seen him gratuitously destroy too many journalists. But I admire him. He is the consummate political operator. The master of spin. The maker of substance. A burier of meddlesome bodies. A maker of kings. The first you realise that you have underestimated him is when your political coffin is being lowered into the grave.
Mandelson won’t have all the answers but he will sort out the key messages. He will warn Starmer to remember that the country is at war. That this is not the time to score overtly political points. That he believes in national unity to defeat the virus. That he just wants to help the government get it right. Tony Blair’s three point message was, ‘education, education, education’. Starmer’s must be, ‘competence, competence, competence’.
Bringing Mandelson in from the cold is a masterstroke which ought to unnerve Number 10. It won’t of course, as there are very few grown ups in the building. The nearest they have is Dan Rosenfield, who as both Darling and Osborne’s principal private secretary has lived through crisis and intrigue. But his master has the terrible affliction of wanting crowd please and that usually fatal quality in politician; the desire to be liked. Who has an uncontrollable urge when seeing a belt to kick below it. As for the other new advisors? Henry Newman and Simone Finn seem like decent sorts but they are not fighting for one simple issue anymore and have been hurled into the electro shock therapy room of that bastard son of ERG, CRG. And this dangerous lot have become obsessional about lockdown, masks, social distancing, authoritarian states, the Chinese AND A TEN YEAR SENTENCE FOR LYING ABOUT QUARANTINE. Forgive me if I quickly go and bite a carpet in solidarity. Or maybe not.
Oh, and don’t forget the Red Wallers, who realise that they are there on work experience and are determined to make it a full time job. In many ways they are more in touch with on the ground reality than many of their contemporaries in safe seats who don’t have to worry too much about the next election. And they don’t have too many party faithful bending their ear about daft conspiracy theories. Because they don’t have too many party faithful.
So my advice to Starmer is listen to Mandelson, who will be as trustworthy as he can be because he has been physically aching to feel wanted again. And it will really, really piss off the left.
And my advice to Number 10? Remember that Thatcher was a terrible leader of the Opposition and was unimpressive at the despatch box. And also remember a balding uncharismatic fellow called Atlee who was going to be demolished by a victorious Churchill in 1945. Do not take anything for granted particularly the Prince of Darkness. This is his last hurrah. Old men in a hurry have nothing to lose and this one has a taste for blood.