WHAT’S wrong with Keir? That, for some, has been one of the central puzzles of this election.

Channel 4’s Cathy Newman put it baldly on Tuesday, when she asked the Labour leader this: how is it that an old Etonian was cutting through more in the working class north than Mr Starmer, the son of a toolmaker?

Why indeed. Starmer may privately wonder the same thing. For the benefit of the tape, however, he pointed to international evidence of voters rallying to their governments during the pandemic, the success of the vaccination programme and his inability to get out campaigning face to face.

One out of those three is convincing: the vaccination programme, which has helped the Prime Minister immensely after his shambolic handling of the pandemic last year. Keir Starmer’s approval ratings overtook Boris Johnson’s exactly a year ago and the Labour leader stayed ahead of the Prime Minister until mid March when Mr Johnson moved ahead.

But it’s nowhere near enough to explain how Boris Johnson, a privileged creature raised in the quadrangles of Eton and Oxford, given to moaning privately about the inadequacy of his £157,000 salary and facing stubborn questions about cronyism and integrity, has managed to command more support than the calm, principled Labour leader during this election season.

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A pre-mortem had already begun by mid-week, with the polls predicting disappointing results for Labour in certain key English mayoral contests, as well as the Hartlepool by-election. Will Starmer surge or slump? We’ll know soon enough.

But whichever way it goes, the ripples – or shockwaves – will be felt here in Scotland too and will shape the critical constitutional debate.

If Keir Starmer emerges battered from this election period, then all bets are off. The comforting received wisdom among certain swing Scottish voters, that this man would save the country from the Tories by winning the next general election, would be thrown into agonising doubt. And for some, perhaps many, the prospect of not just three but eight more years of Tory government could tip the balance towards voting Yes in any referendum held in the near future.

Keir Starmer matters in Scottish politics. When he took over from Jeremy Corbyn in the wake of Labour’s worst election result since 1935, for some Scottish voters it seemed to signal the opening up of a third way – neither the strident right-wing British nationalism of the Tories nor the obsessive Scottish nationalism of the SNP. He talked about federalism and changing the way the UK worked.

Here was a man people could respect – a man with a moral compass and someone, unlike his predecessor, who would not alienate half the electorate by trying to wage a class war. Faced with this former public prosecutor, who devoured detail and wielded questions in parliament as if they were oratorical stilettos, it seemed inconceivable that the ill-prepared chancer facing him on the government front bench could ever have a hope of surviving the comparison.

And yet he has. In spite of the swirling allegations of moral laxity, Boris Johnson went into this election in more buoyant mood than Mr Starmer.

You can speculate as to why: the vaccine roll out; a failure by Mr Starmer to land enough blows during the pandemic; over-reliance on a patronising strategy of “exposing” the Tories as the nasty party, as if former Labour voters would suddenly repent their sins and come flocking back; Starmer’s own image, in spite of his working class roots, as just another liberal north London lawyer; or simply the fact that northern working class voters had felt so invisible for so long that seeing themselves at the centre of an electoral strategy in 2019 – even a Tory one – has won their temporary loyalty. They want to see if the promises will be kept.The Herald:

Other theories are available. Whatever the explanation, though, a poor showing for Labour would have far-reaching consequences.

As well as leaving Scottish voters feeling that their constitutional choices are narrowing, it could shore up the view among some Scots that England is inherently and hopelessly right-wing, in contrast to supposedly lefty Scotland.

The SNP has sought relentlessly to portray Scotland this way, partly for political reasons and partly because it is the party’s sincere aspiration for Scotland to be more liberal, open, tolerant and compassionate than the UK. What’s more, there has been a degree of buy-in to the idea across the political spectrum in Scotland for years.

As it happens, it’s not really accurate. If you dig into the detail, a rather different picture emerges: whether it’s on taxation, immigration, welfare or government intervention – the key issues defining voters’ position on the left-right spectrum – the research shows only a wafer thin difference between Scots and the rest of the UK.

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But the perception persists, strongly, and a good weekend of results for the Tories in England will only deepen it. Some voters will conclude that given the apparently irrevocable political differences between our two countries, the best option would be to part ways.

So where does all this leave Starmer?

His favourability ratings in Scotland are much better than Mr Johnson’s, who is disliked by three times as many people as the number who like him. But Mr Starmer’s popularity is still nowhere near where it needs to be if he wants to exert a gravitational pull on voters who are flirting with independence.

The most important finding of five recent polls by Survation is that nearly a third of Scottish voters – 28 per cent – have no opinion of Mr Starmer either way.

That’s bad, but it’s also an opportunity. If the Labour leader can build his profile between now and another general election in four years’ time – which seems inevitable – then there is the scope for him to build popularity. But he will have to regain his status, from the early days of his leadership, as the Prime Minister’s most feared inquisitor.

The polling evidence suggesting disappointing results for Labour could be wrong. Better-than-expected outcomes in key English contests over the weekend would give Mr Starmer momentum and reassure constitutional waverers in Scotland that he has what it takes to beat the Tories at the next general election.

We’ll see. What’s certain is that it matters, what Keir does next, and not just in England.

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