Tory peer warns that his party is underestimating Keir Starmer

Sir Keir Starmer (left) is Labour's new leader. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA.

Sir Keir Starmer (left) is Labour's new leader. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA. - Credit: PA

Theresa May's former chief of staff has warned that his party is not taking the new leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, seriously enough.

Gavin Barwell, now a Tory peer in the House of Lords, was responding to claims that the media were 'overhyping' Labour's new leader, and that he has 'massive problems with widespread appeal'.

But following polls which show Starmer's favourability ratings are now 34 points ahead of Boris Johnson, Barwell wrote for Conservative Home saying that they should not estimate Labour's potential now Jeremy Corbyn is gone.

He wrote: 'We shouldn't underestimate the impact of Labour no longer being led by Jeremy Corbyn. Boris Johnson's triumph last December was based on building a coalition between people who liked his Brexit deal and people who were not so keen on it – in some cases, actively hostile to it – but who judged that having Corbyn as prime minister would be even worse. With Corbyn gone, that coalition could easily fracture.

'And Corbyn's departure also increases the risk of Labour and the Liberal Democrats co-operating to encourage tactical voting. Johnson got 43.6% of the vote in December.'

Barwell said a considerable part of Johnson's election win in December was due to the Brexit vote - something that may not be so successful at the next election.

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'Maybe those Leave voters who switched to the Conservatives last year will stick with us, but it's not a given – that's why Number 10 wanted the election before Brexit was done. And if they don't, getting back the historically Conservative Remain voters we lost won't be easy.'

And he said that whilst Starmer might have an uphill struggle with winning back Red Wall seats, it is not Labour's 'only route to power'. He explained that seats in London and the South could still fall to an effective opposition party now Corbyn is gone - whether that is Lib Dem or Labour.

MORE: How Labour rediscovered the lost art of opposition

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And he explained that the new leader is likely to return Labour to politics from the centre ground, something that did not seem likely during the leadership contest.

He wrote: 'During the campaign, he didn't depart far from Labour's 2019 manifesto, but the reshuffle he conducted on winning – jettisoning a number of leading Corbynites and bringing back Blairites – signalled a much bigger shift.'

Barwell also urged the Tories not to 'underestimate the pendulum effect', especially with the public shifting against the government over its coronavirus pandemic response.

'The longer you are in government, the more powerful the siren voice of 'Time for a change' becomes. Assuming that the next election isn't until the end of this parliament, we will have had Conservative-led governments for 14 years. It would be a triumph unprecedented in modern political history to secure another five years.'

Whilst Barwell points out that the SNP could still prevent an outright majority for Labour at the next election, 'he doesn't need to win an overall majority; he simply needs to deprive Boris Johnson of one.'

He added: 'The Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid, the Greens and the SDLP would all prefer him as prime minister to Johnson. So, too, might the DUP, given that he gave in to the EU's demand for a separate arrangement for Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement.'

The comments come as the Tories appeared to turn on their leader over his handling of the latest phase of the coronavirus pandemic response.

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