Johnson capturing the most fertile political terrain so he can limit Labour’s options

Government programme full of popular proposals to ‘build back better’, with more money for adult education and transport

 Boris Johnson  and  Labour Party leader Keir Starmer leading MPs in a socially-distanced  line through the central lobby for  the state opening of parliament.  Photograph:  Getty Images

Boris Johnson and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer leading MPs in a socially-distanced line through the central lobby for the state opening of parliament. Photograph: Getty Images

 

In a flurry of tweets after last week’s Hartlepool byelection, former Downing Street chief-of-staff Dominic Cummings said that if Keir Starmer wanted to win the next general election he should hire David Shor.

A 29-year-old data scientist who worked on Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, Shor identifies as a socialist but he believes political campaigns are too heavily influenced by the ideologically motivated.

“I think fundamentally politics is about talking about issues that people care about, running on popular things, not talking about or embracing unpopular things... All of this advice isn’t that complicated,” he said in an interview earlier this year.

Starmer may have been too busy at the weekend feuding with deputy leader Angela Rayner to follow Cummings’s tip but Boris Johnson appears to have internalised Shor’s advice as he prepared for the queen’s speech outlining his government’s new legislative programme.

The programme is full of popular proposals to “build back better” after the pandemic, with more money for adult education, transport links and freeports, particularly in the contested political territory of the English northeast and midlands.

Plans to deny asylum to refugees who enter Britain illegally or who came through France or Belgium may be cruel and unjust but they are popular among Conservative supporters and other target voters.

The same is true of legislation to deal with a threat to free speech on college campuses that exists more in the choleric imaginations of right-wing newspaper columnists than in reality.

Johnson has deferred action on issues where no popular option is available, such as how to pay for care for old people and how to deal with the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. But with his party’s embrace of big spending and an expanded role for the state and his appeal to the public’s authoritarian instincts, Johnson is capturing the most fertile political terrain in the hope of shutting off Labour’s options.

Pride of lions

In his speech Starmer gazed across the Atlantic to Joe Biden’s bold economic policies, but the Labour leader might also envy the president’s apparently easy relationship with vice-president Kamala Harris. Picking up on the fact that one of the MPs who opened the debate was a former safari guide, Johnson went in for the kill.

“In any pride of lions it is the male who tends to occupy the position of nominal authority while the most dangerous beast and prize hunter is in fact the lioness, a point that I am sure [Starmer] bears in mind as he contemplates the deputy leader,” Johnson said, before repeating the 24 words that make up the four titles Rayner negotiated from Starmer at the weekend.

“Though the more titles he feeds her the hungrier she is likely to become.” 

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