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Even this move towards the EU feels underwhelming

After the clown show of Johnson and Truss, Keir Starmer is reassuringly sensible. But will that be enough to save Britain?

Is Keir Starmer afraid to put his head above the Brexit parapet? Photo: Leon Neal/Getty

Are we being unreasonable? By “we” here I mean me, of course, but also the electorate at large, and everyone else who happens to write newspaper columns for a living. Are we terrible hypocrites? We spent years whining and complaining about politics being too intense, and that old Chinese curse – “may you live in interesting times” – felt so close to the bone that it wasn’t even funny any more.

Boris Johnson was exhausting and Jeremy Corbyn was exhausting, and attempting to follow the twists and turns of the Brexit saga meant living with a permanent headache. We dreamt of boredom and yearned for the days when politics was quiet, so quiet that there was no real need to follow it beyond an occasional glance at newspaper headlines.

We prayed and prayed and lo! The fates delivered. Rishi Sunak is a dull technocrat in an oddly tight suit and Keir Starmer is… well, he’s everything we wanted, isn’t he? He’s calm and responsible, he rarely raises his voice, he doesn’t take up endless lost causes and he runs his party with a confident, iron fist. He’s everything we thought we were dreaming of, so why are we complaining?

“What’s boring is being in opposition,” is what the Labour leader said last year when reports came out that some of his more prominent MPs had been calling him boring. The exchange took place at a shadow cabinet meeting and was, according to a frontbencher in attendance, “ironically very boring”.

Even his new approach to the great lightning-rod issue of Brexit is underwhelming. Promising to renegotiate a deal everyone knows is broken with people who don’t want to renegotiate it and only pledging to do so in two years’ time – perhaps – is not quite the national cure the electorate wants or needs.

The trouble is, both sides had a point. Starmer is right that opposition is not as exciting as government. As Corbyn found out before him, voters soon tire of leaders who do nothing but furiously yap from the sidelines. There is also a risk of becoming the boy who cried wolf. If you’re shocked, appalled and exasperated by every single thing the government does, no one will be listening to you when you try to explain that no, this one thing really is especially dreadful.

As the polls are currently showing, slow and steady does, at least this time, seem to be winning the race. Still, it is hard not to be frustrated at this iteration of the Labour Party. The country is broken in a thousand and one ways; public services are held together with bits of tape, and critical infrastructure with old pieces of gum. Levels of child poverty have gone through the roof and the cost-of-living crisis is hitting everyone. Renters can’t afford to rent, young adults can’t afford to have children, and many of their parents can’t afford to comfortably retire. If you would like to see a doctor before you die of old age, you may as well try to contact them using a ouija board. It’ll be quicker. 

The government is unwilling or unable to fix any of it. They are, as a result, on their way out; everyone knows it, even them. Labour supporters should be jubilant – some hardened Starmer supporters are – but a certain sense of anxiety lingers.

Starmer is being overly cautious because he has watched his party snatch countless defeats from the jaws of victory. He knows history is not yet written, and that the British electorate always mistrusts a left wing party that looks as if it may get carried away. He is playing the hand he has, not the one he would like to hold. 

Still – still – it doesn’t quite feel like enough. Everything is broken and a cautious, relentlessly measured approach doesn’t feel like the right match for our desperate times. Will a Labour government have the gumption to fix the many, many problems currently blighting Britain? Already, shadow ministers are hinting at issues that they only intend to deal with during their second term. It somehow feels both humble and arrogant, mixing in a frustratingly realist stance with an optimism they haven’t quite earned.

If they do not prove in one term that they have what it takes to make the country better, who are they to assume that voters will have the good grace to keep them around? Decisiveness doesn’t have to rhyme with radicalism, and being radical isn’t always a bad thing. Corbyn failed because he was offering too much, and his successor should be wary of offering too little.

Starmer should also remember that the world he is in today isn’t the one his leadership started in. Both Johnson and Liz Truss were mad and tiring, and made the electorate long for a PM who would run the country competently and – most importantly – quietly. Sunak is many things, but hysterical isn’t one of them. Labour could once hope to rely on being seen as a safe pair of hands, but voters are now realising that (relative) calm doesn’t always guarantee efficiency.

Then again, perhaps Starmer will be proved right. Everyone’s knackered. Playing it safe may not be thrilling, but it is better than recklessly gambling on the fate of both party and country. Being bored isn’t ideal, but maybe it’s the best we can hope for right now.

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