UK Politics: Starmer thrives at PMQs but does it matter?

Labour leader Keir Starmer
It is too early to form confident judgements about Keir Starmer

Labour's odds for the next election are shortening after Keir Starmer's assured debut at PMQs. Paul Krishnamurty, however, regards it an overreaction to detached media coverage...

"Starmer may well turn out to be a winner but, for now, this is a conversation taking place amongst a tiny, super-engaged minority...previous parliamentary stars failed to cut through."

The Prime Ministers Questions debut of any new Labour or Conservative leader is always a set-piece moment in British politics. Jeremy Corbyn asking David Cameron questions sent in from the public, or Cameron telling Tony Blair "He was the future once" are part of Westminster folklore.

Starmer debut earns rave reviews

Keir Starmer's first performance was set against a completely different backdrop. A largely empty, socially distanced House of Commons, listening respectfully to the debate. No jeering. No braying. Nevertheless so far as the commentariat were concerned, the new Labour leader made a big impact.

No doubt, the media environment has changed and not just because the country is in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. None of these commentators ever hid their disdain for Jeremy Corbyn and Wednesday afternoons on Twitter after 2015 became a haven for sneering and mockery. Serious, less partisan, political analysis may be back.

Labour's next election odds are crashing

Will this change public opinion? Should punters be taking much notice? The markets are certainly moving in Labour's direction under Starmer.

Her Majesty's Opposition have now hit their shortest odds to win Most Seats at the Next General Election of this parliament at 2.265/4. In a more startling move, they're into 2.9215/8 to win an Overall Majority.

Before getting into the specifics of Starmer, PMQs and parliament in general, it is important to remember the scale of the task. Whenever that election takes place (I see no reason to doubt it will be 2024, a 1.564/7 chance) - Labour will start 163 seats behind the Conservatives.

That sort of turnaround is tough but achievable. Cameron overturned a 157 deficit in 2010, beating Gordon Brown's Labour by 48. Tony Blair turned a 65 deficit into a 253 lead in 1997. Politics changes fast.

Labour majority odds underestimate the task

Winning an overall majority from here, however, will be a gargantuan task, given that Labour are all but dead in Scotland. They may very well take seats off the Tories in England and Wales, but the SNP are a wholly different proposition. Without doing so in large scale, Starmer's Labour will need to win in places they never have before.

Nor, regardless of a more favourable media, is there any indication of a Labour comeback - the Tories are polling in excess of 50%. I don't consider that a realistic figure - it reflects the crisis and vacuum of recent months when Labour were leaderless - but there's no reason to assume the new, united coalition on the Right will slip below 40%.

Labour's brand remains pretty toxic and the Tories have no competition for right-wing voters now the Brexit Party and UKIP are irrelevant. I have no interest in jumping aboard these pro-Labour market bandwagons yet, especially for a majority. 2.9215/8 is in my view a terrible price.

None of that is a statement on Starmer - about whose leadership it is far too early to draw meaningful conclusions. He may well turn out to be a winner but, for now, this is a conversation taking place amongst a tiny, super-engaged minority. Moreover, I remember how previous parliamentary stars failed to cut through.

PMQs prowess has rarely been a good guide

When Blair became PM, he was repeatedly slaughtered at the Despatch Box by William Hague, whose jokes would regularly make the news cycles later that day. He failed massively when it came to elections. Michael Howard also often skewered Blair but couldn't stop Labour winning a third straight majority in 2005, despite the Iraq war.

Cameron was effective enough at PMQs but it is quite a stretch to suggest his performances in parliament played a big role in bringing Labour down. That was due to the financial crisis, recession and deficit. Gordon Brown's personal brand completely imploded. Indeed one might argue that Cameron's subsequent failure to win a majority represented weak, unconvincing leadership.

The point is that we already knew Starmer would be good in parliament. He is a celebrated lawyer, whose forensic performances during key Brexit debates were widely praised. It didn't cut through with the public or do the party any good at the General Election.

He hasn't faced Boris Johnson yet - a politician who does have a unique relationship with the public, in stark contrast to Dominic Raab. The Labour movement is divided - some are even in warlike mode in the wake of last week's leaked report revealing internal plots against Corbyn.

None of this suggests to me that this is a good time to be taking much reduced odds about long-term Labour targets - regardless of what the usual suspects in the Westminster media say.

Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.

UK - Next General Election: UK - Next General Election (Most Seats)

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