Can Keir Starmer maintain Labour’s poll lead over Boris Johnson?

Labour has taken a firm lead in the national polls, reports Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana

At a shadow cabinet meeting before Christmas, I heard how Labour’s director of strategy Deborah Mattinson had presented the findings of a series of focus groups to Keir Starmer and his top team.

She told those present that one thing was clear from everything she had heard – the best way to attack Boris Johnson was to focus on the question of “competence”.

One person watching was not that impressed. “That is what we did last year,” they said. “And it didn’t work then”.

But this is 2022, not 2021, and Ms Mattinson – as well as Sir Keir – are convinced that things are very different for Labour this year.

After all, their political attacks on Mr Johnson now come after he faced all those damaging revelations about Downing Street parties, two huge by-elections defeats to Lib Dems (I will explain why Labour are happy about that) and a hefty backbench rebellion over Covid.

So, when Sir Keir stood up to begin this new year, setting out his stall, it wasn’t surprising that Tory incompetence was part of the script - alongside a promise of a “contract” based on three key principles- security, prosperity and respect.

This short speech was policy light, but its aim was about setting tone and direction.

Sir Keir said he was patriotic and proud to stand in front of a flag; that he didn’t see politics as a “branch of the entertainment industry (but) the serious business of getting things done”; and that he wanted to praise just three previous Labour leaders – Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair.

Asked about the final comment, he said he wouldn’t apologise for picking out the only leaders who had won elections, and argued he wanted to be the fourth.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson Credit: Charles McQuillan/PA

Sir Keir certainly has a new bounce to his step – several shadow cabinet members have told me that. And it is not surprising.

He has gone from trailing Mr Johnson, on whom nothing seemed to stick, to Labour taking a firm lead in the national polls – and an even bigger one in critical northern and midlands “red wall” seats.

The Lib Dem wins, meanwhile, are good news, because Labour need them to beat the Tories if they have any path to an overall majority.

But this is mid-term – perhaps two years out from an election. At the same point in 2013, Ed Miliband had an even bigger lead over David Cameron. So we know a lot can change.

In Northfield, Birmingham, close to where Sir Keir delivered his speech on Tuesday – voters gave ITV News a mix of views. Some were firm supporters, or said he was going in the right direction.

But others said they still did not know enough about him, or his policies.

One shadow cabinet member said there needed to be some realism as well, about the size of the challenge (Labour needs to win 123 seats for a majority, including recovering in Scotland) and warned that his party should never underestimate Mr Johnson.

A lot can change in politics – and fast. But for now, at least, it’s a positive new year for Sir Keir.