Hospitals bombed; electricity, water and communication cut off; journalists and aid workers killed in their beds; hundreds of videos of wailing rescuers, lifting lifeless children’s bodies from piles of ashen grey rubble. Apocalyptic scenes, but none of it enough to move Britain’s official representatives of the parliamentary left.

For the Labour leadership, ceasefire seems to be the hardest word.

Keir Starmer’s truculence puts him at odds with hundreds of thousands of British protesters, 76 per cent of voters and diplomatic opinion worldwide. Some would call that foolish. But others would observe these same facts and call it strength. An article published in The Independent earlier this week praised Starmer for “rightly acting like a prime minister-in-waiting, rather than a leader of opposition who can take the easy option – in this case, calling for the ceasefire.”

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Sometimes, defying the popular mood is strength. However, those examples are few and far between, which is why they become part of political folklore. More often, it signifies weakness, as Labour’s modern history testifies. Two decades ago, liberal pundits hailed Tony Blair as a bull-necked Churchill or an iron-willed Thatcher when he faced down public, protesters and world leaders over Iraq.

Blair, in truth, was a weakling whose actions – weak-kneed before Washington’s authority, pandering to a President’s whims like a loyal manservant – epitomised the fragility of British diplomacy and political culture. Blair now cuts a wraith-like presence, living off petrodollar philanthropy, his authority pulverised in his homeland. There is no retrospective vindication of Blair by any side of the political spectrum, because he represents national humiliation.

We are mere weeks into this crisis and already Starmer seems to be losing control of his ranks. Labour’s senior officials have abandoned party discipline en masse, effectively turning the “ceasefire” question into an individual decision, based on personal conscience or electoral calculation in constituencies. Andy Burnham, Sadiq Khan and Anas Sarwar – three of the most high-profile Labour leaders outside the Parliamentary party – have broken ranks. Leaders of councils, MPs and trade unions are doing likewise.

Starmer’s inner clique have allegedly called this dissent “a small collection of headless chickens.” This aloofness, again, suggests weakness not strength. It took Thatcher and Blair about eight years in office to reach these levels of delusional detachment: Starmer isn’t even elected yet.

Equally, Starmer hasn’t stuck to his guns. He made wild statements in an emotional frenzy after the October 7 Hamas attacks, which quickly became unsustainable, at which point he crumbled. Thus, he no longer believes that Israel’s right to defend itself extends to the war crime of cutting off water, food, medicine and electricity. His words, apparently, were taken out of context (readers can re-watch the interview and judge for themselves).

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Conversely, he’s less clear about whether carpet-bombing hospitals and refugee camps is a legitimate mode of defence. On those questions, he’s prone to squirming about with euphemisms that torture the English language: again, hardly a Churchillian or even Thatcherite trait. Starmer would have us believe that he opposes a “ceasefire” but favours a “pause”.

As everyone who has suffered under a bad boss knows, leaders who make a grand performance of strength – puffing themselves up to display authority – are rarely iron-willed or effective. As a rule, they are overpromoted middle-mangers, terrified of being unmasked for their ineptitude, whose grand displays of power over their minions disguise their trembling before the bigger bosses. Such is the reality of a succession of New Labour leaders. This is what sections of the liberal commentariat call “strength”. Acting prime ministerial is, as the term implies, a disguise for the absence of personal character necessary to take important decisions.

By contrast, political strength and integrity are made when people are able to change their minds based on self-reflection, mutual understanding and a willingness to see the other side of the argument. Strong leaders admit mistakes rather than ineptly persisting in defending the indefensible.

Above all, strong leaders have an intuitive intellectual grasp and a sense of where the wind is blowing. Starmer is a vacuum on these fronts. His political insight goes no further than, “disappoint the left and do the opposite of what Corbyn would do”.

Corbyn was considered a reflexive opponent of Western foreign policy; Starmer will thus defend Western allies no matter how blockheaded their decision making. Thus he handed Israel’s leadership a blank cheque, without pausing to examine how mildly liberal Israelis judge their government. He thus placed his fate in the hands of Benjamin Netanyahu, a leader reviled by many in his country as feckless and (to quote a Ha’aretz columnist) in hoc to “inept fascists” in his government.

Forget Jeremy Corbyn. The undeniable fact is that Western foreign policy is messy and contradictory. It’s unclear what supporting “the West” means nowadays, because America keeps embroiling itself in conflicts it cannot control, somewhat regardless of anyone’s self-interest or better judgement.

Starmer is chasing a phantom. Above all, the world’s strongest powers need sane intellectual leadership right now, based on a recognition of the chaos Western decisions have caused. Instead, we have leaders acting like insecure graduate jobseekers, enacting a grand performance of what a prime minister would look like.

America’s decision making is remote and aloof, and not just on Israel. On Thursday, the United Nations voted on a resolution about America’s trade embargo on Cuba: 187 states voted to end it, with only the US and Israel voting against (Ukraine, alone, abstained).

Similar votes have been cast on Palestine, with the US reduced to core support among right-leaning eastern Europe, Israel itself and obscure island nations like Nauru. Liberal opinion is politely tip-toeing around these realities, because Biden rather than Trump is in power. But there’s an election afoot, which will once again highlight the wild instabilities at the heart of the American state.

Rather than offer leadership – far less strong leadership – Starmer has hitched his authority to leaders whose military strength varies inversely to their good judgement. In that very particular sense, he’s rightly called Tony Blair’s successor. Don’t forget, Blair got re-elected after Iraq; given the opportunity, he might have managed it twice. But nobody will build statues to Blair, unless for the symbolic purposes of immediately tearing him off his plinth.