Will Britain elect a prime minister people see as weak? This unfortunate question is one Sir Keir Starmer must confront on the eve of his first in-person party conference as Labour leader, however personally painful he finds it.
Can he reverse voters’ first impressions of him by taking on his party in Brighton then imprinting on the nation a vision of a better more prosperous Britain under Labour this week?
Or can other qualities of the Labour leader and his party ensure he is still electable?
What seems in little doubt is that is what the public currently think.
Exclusive polling for Sky News by Opinium makes stark reading.
By a two to one margin the public believe Sir Keir is a weak leader, according to polling conducted on Monday to Wednesday of this week, with 47% saying he is weak and 21% saying he is strong. The rest do not know.
Perhaps even more extraordinarily, the poll suggests existing Labour voters are evenly split over Sir Keir’s strength – 39% think he is strong but 37% think weak.
Pollsters believe that being seen as “weak” by the public ultimately scuppered Theresa May and Gordon Brown, so Sir Keir would be unwise to ignore the finding. But who he should fight, and how, remain big unknowns.
Many Labour MPs are crying out for Sir Keir to show spark and verve when he addresses the faithful on Wednesday.
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After all, he is up against Boris Johnson, who revels in rejecting the qualities Sir Keir espouses, and appears to profit politically from doing so.
The PM is currently successfully dealing with a competent, safe, managerial and cautious opponent with his wild proclamations, fights with the French in Franglais, a speak-first-check-later approach to the facts, a disdain for the law, conventions, courts, judges and elite opinion and an enthusiasm to be on TV bizarrely unmatched by anyone in the Labour Party.
That these qualities prove a vote winner for Mr Johnson have surprised many in Labour and Sir Keir may just be wondering whether anyone will “donnez moi un break”, but this is the reality Labour must deal with.
The Opinium poll also suggests the wider public want inspiration. 39% of voters say he is boring, while just 18% call Sir Keir interesting.
Labour voters are more likely to see him as boring, with 32% who currently vote for his party saying so, against 31% who say he is interesting.
“The public had a good first impression of Starmer, with more saying they had a positive view of him than any opposition leader since Tony Blair last summer,” explains pollster Chris Curtis from Opinium.
“But over the last 12-14 months his popularity has dropped substantially. While voters still see him as someone who is competent and cares about people’s concerns, he is not currently viewed as strong enough to be Britain’s prime minister.”
Sir Keir has a clear two-pronged plan to upend his reputation this week in Brighton, and the leader’s allies talk of him wanting to “turn the page”.
The first prong is to change some internal party rules on the Saturday and Sunday, the second is to flesh out his vision for the country between Monday and Wednesday, culminating in the speech he will make to conclude the conference.
But the rule changes have already run into trouble, and it is not clear whether Sir Keir will have the strength to push them through in the next 36 hours.
His flagship move is to scrap the way future Labour leaders are chosen, abandoning the One Member One Vote system introduced by Ed Miliband which elected Jeremy Corbyn and Sir Keir, and return to the electoral college system used previously.
Neither would have stopped Mr Corbyn’s 2015 election, yet the initiative appears designed to pick a deliberate fight with the Corbyn-supporting left.
It is not entirely clear why, however, there appears to have been a cooler than expected reaction from the unions like Unite, with it unclear whether more pro-Starmer unions like GMB will win the day.
The biggest issue, however, as the row sucks energy and oxygen out of the start of conference, is what it reveals about Sir Keir’s priorities.
Why change the rules governing the selection of his successor at all?
The Labour leadership have done a poor job explaining why this is necessary, with Sir Keir largely avoiding the media this week and Shabana Mahmood, the party’s campaign coordinator, telling me only that it was part of a “wider package of measures” but declining to go into detail why this specific change is so important.
Into this vacuum, the left is coming up with excitable conspiracy theories whether or not some around Sir Keir might try to engineer a vacancy – highly unlikely but nevertheless unhelpful speculation.
Then there is the question of whether Sir Keir can manage to speak to the country, through senior members of his frontbench team on Monday and Tuesday and his own speech on Wednesday.
The first draft of his vision came out on Wednesday night in the 11,500 word Fabian pamphlet about his vision of a contributory society.
Based on reflections from his travel around the country this summer, it suggests he sees a need for more workers’ rights, tougher laws to tackle violence against women and a strong hint that Labour would reintroduce a class size cap.
Presented as a document designed to burnish Sir Keir’s centre ground credentials, it stresses the need for partnership with the private sector and even nods to the legitimate causes of Brexit.
But this needs to be translated into a vision that captivates.
Although hard, it can be done like David Cameron’s speech as Leader of the Opposition in 2006 or Ed Miliband’s Predators v Producers speech of 2011, who were both leaders on the back foot at the time their speeches turned their fortunes around.
The scale of Sir Keir’s challenge can be seen in the hardest to measure metric of all: the silence of people who should be allies.
The Labour leader’s office committed an act of self harm this week, in the face of the energy crisis and run-up to Labour conference, not even able to field frontbench supporters to go on TV and radio to cheer for Sir Keir and his rule changes and attack the government.
Instead it was left to Gordon Brown and John McDonnell to fill the airwaves.
Asked by Kay Burley on Sky News why the absence, Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds suggested: “I’m sure it was more to do with some kind of logistical issues rather than anything more serious than that.”
Asked in private this week what they make of the operation and preparations for the conference, many have said they don’t disagree but the handling of the last few days felt so chaotic they want to avoid intervening.
“I’m not sure what he’s passionate about,” says one Labour MP who should on paper be one of Sir Keir’s strongest allies.
“I think the rule change is the right thing to do I’m just not going out to bat for it when they’ve cocked up the execution so badly.”
MPs like the former party chairman Ian Lavery are now openly giving odds on Sir Keir being gone by Christmas, giving a one in five chance of this outcome.
If he wants to persuade voters he is indeed a strong leader, Sir Keir needs his allies cheering him on and making that case.