Malcolm Gooderham: Conservatives need to work out how to identify and attack Starmer – before he does the same to Sunak

Malcolm Gooderham is the founder of Elgin Advisory and a former Conservative Party adviser.

Sir Keir Starmer is no Tony Blair. But it poses a similar dilemma for the Conservative Party: how to challenge it and determine its leadership. Blair moved with the Conservative compass. The Tories juggled several political strategies: New Labor was a sham (a marketing ploy to disguise Old Labour); New Labor was a reality but superficial (controlled by Old Labour); New Labor was indeed in charge (and creating New Threats).

For some MPs, there is now a sense of deja vu. Thr Party is still looking for a strategy to identify and defeat Starmer. This is most commonly seen in PMQs. Prime Ministers Johnson, Truss and now Sunak have all flirted with different approaches. Test options: A new leader with Corbyn’s agenda; a new leader without principles and a plan; and a new leader with new policy threats.

In an era when leaders embody their parties, it is important to criticize and define Sir Keir’s leadership style. However, whether voters perceive him as “boring” or “bland” is a strength and a weakness. Both teams struggle with how to handle this aspect of his public persona.

Tempting though it is, it is unlikely that voters will come to see Sir Keir as “Corbyn’s son”. His attack that he is unprincipled and that Labor has no plan for government is at least partly flawed because Ministers should be reinforcing and criticizing the Opposition’s positions and proposals. This leads to focusing on their agenda and defining it as a risk to the future prosperity and security of the country.

To be compelling, a story must be credible, accessible, and memorable. There are two intuitive options for framing Starmer. First, he tries to be “everything to everyone”, which shows that he is indecisive and unable to show strong leadership in difficult times. Second, his “softness” does not mean that his Party has a moderate platform. Instead, it glosses over a leftist agenda that poses clear policy risks (“the danger is in the details”).

The success of such narratives depends on many factors, including the characterization and popularization of voting costs. To date, the Conservatives have been slow to identify and respond to Starmer’s appeal. In contrast, Labor quickly realized that Rishi Sunak was an electoral asset and was consistent and blunt in his criticism.

There is a certain method to Labour’s attacks. They know that, like everything else, Sunak is leaving his party behind. They know that first impressions count. And they know that voters who haven’t yet formed an opinion about him will do so in the coming weeks. After this point, it will be more difficult for both parties to rebuild their reputations. The Conservative Party could increase the appeal of Sunak as part of a political strategy that motivates and connects with the “shared values” of fickle voters and party members, while rejecting personal attacks as counterproductive.

The potential of any leader to change the prospects of his party depends on several factors. Without the trust of voters, it is very difficult to succeed in an election, no matter how talented or likable a leader is. The 1997 General Election is a good example of this. Even as the economy experienced its longest period of low-inflationary growth since World War II, the Conservative Party’s reputation was tarnished to the point where it was unable to bank any political credit.

Labor is hoping for a similar scenario two years from now, as polls show it will inherit a strengthening economy and a landslide electoral mandate. However, securing a working majority would require a larger two-point swing than New Labour. The Sunak team knows that election contests are always framed as “change and more of the same”. In Starmer, unlike Blair, Labor does not have a natural “change” candidate. In fact, he seems to many voters to be a very conventional figure, facing very unconventional times.

The Sunak team may be looking at something closer to the experience of the 1992 General Election. There, a long Conservative campaign reversed expectations, worried Labor’s credibility to run the economy and secured a fourth consecutive term. The party was, of course, led by a personally popular Prime Minister who had only been in the job for 18 months – he had previously served briefly as chancellor.

Rishi Sunak’s path to a second term is based on many factors, many of which are beyond his control. This gives added importance to determining what it can do, such as setting its own agenda and that of their competitors. Such messaging must be compelling and delivered consistently and repeatedly. Because, as Mrs. Thatcher said, “I’m tired of saying it, the voters are starting to hear it.”