A Plague On All Your Cults

“We are a strong team”, declared Keir Starmer at the end of an hour long webinar conducted by his deputy Angela Rayner and himself. They were answering questions emailed in by party members. It was an impressive outing for the leadership duo, demonstrating their radicalism and commitment to a better future. There will be more webinars over the coming week.

One of Starmer and Rayner's biggest tasks will be to sort out the party machine, where Corbyn supporters are still in charge. The leak of an 851-page report, seeking to shift the blame for mishandling anti Semitism onto former general secretary Iain McNicol, shows their priority is fighting past battles.

The past seems to be the preoccupation of Jeremy Corbyn himself. I wasn’t impressed with his self valedictory excursion. He claims he could have won the 2017 election if his leadership hadn’t been challenged in 2016.  

There is an obvious flaw in that Corbyn what-might-have-been. Theresa May only called the election because under Corbyn’s leadership Labour had nose-dived in the polls. He did improve his ratings but he lost despite May’s awful campaign.

There is of course another Corbyn what-might-have been. If he had put in a decent shift during the Referendum campaign might the result have been different? Might we have been spared Brexit?

Corbyn still has his followers, but in an interesting podcast with fellow leading Corbynistas, Matt Zarb-Cousin exposes how the left vote disintegrated during the leadership campaign. If there ever was a cult of Corbyn it may be the faithful are fading away.

If the cult of Corbyn is indeed in decline, a more insidious cult is being ramped up. Boris Johnson emerged from his hospital bed on Easter Sunday with a pitch perfect tribute to his saviours in the NHS 

It led the FT’s Robert Shrimsley to declare that the “Tory leader has made himself high priest of the institution, described as the UK’s national religion.”

Shrimsley is a commentator, not a cultist, but there will be plenty of proselytisers in the Telegraph – a prime example is Allison Pearson, writing “the health of Boris Johnson is the health of the body politic and by extension of the nation itself” – and the Sun, which has run a series of front pages calling on people to put aside political differences and pray for the Prime Minister.  

Shrimsley warns us unbelievers that the video shows “his gift for communication and political nous had long put him closer to voters than opponents would wish to admit.”

The Prime Minister is likely to be convalescing for some time and the hope of the Boris believers is that his faltering start to the crisis, when he looked out of his depth and was compared unfavourably with his dashing young Chancellor, will be a distant memory.

Former Tory MP Nicholas Soames believes Johnson’s “powerful and moving statement” on leaving St Thomas’s Hospital suggests “his recent experience will change forever his views on many vital issues and his approach to Government.”

We shall see. A litmus test will be the apparent determination of the Cabinet to reject an extension to Brexit negotiations, which would heap more damage on an already fragile economy.

The key question for me, is whether Johnson has the skill set for managing the long haul of the crisis and its aftermath. He is essentially a jester journalist, desperate to please with a cavalier relationship with the facts. As his post-hospital video showed, he is at his best when delivering an upbeat message.

What is needed in current times however, is a forensic mind capable of sifting the evidence, then devising and implementing a long-term strategy. I am biased but I think Kier Starmer fits that bill – which brings me back to another what-might-have-been. If Jeremy Corbyn had dumped his vanity and stood down, when it was clear voters didn’t trust him, we might now have a leader people believe in to do the job.

By Don Brind - Labour Movement for Europe Press Officer & Former BBC political correspondent

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