LET’S start with the obvious: unless the Conservatives decide to celebrate their crash in the opinion polls with another leadership election, Sir Keir Starmer is going to be the UK’s next prime minister.

After the next General Election, Rachel Reeves seems guaranteed to inherit the budget box from Jeremy Hunt. And behind them, a working majority of Labour MPs looks likely to be returned to Westminster. What long seemed impossible has finally happened – England has got tired of the Tories.

But who are we getting instead? The ­character of the Labour leadership is not just of interest to armchair psychologists trying to work out what makes these ­people tick. Their preoccupations, attitude ­towards power, the press and policy are ­going to shape the next few years in British politics. There are reasons for anxiety.

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Writing in The Guardian last week, former Tory MP Justine Greening piled praise on the Labour leadership. Her main thesis is that “purpose and authenticity matter in politics” – so far, so profound. She argues that poor Rishi Sunak has lost his true self down the back of the Downing Street sofa and suggests this loss of soul explains her party’s current travails.

The subtext of Greening’s swipe at ­Sunak is the suggestion he’s a secret sensible who feels obliged to keep Suella Braverman in his cabinet and endorse madcap fringe ­policies on everything from the fictional “war on motorists” to the hysterical “war on woke” to keep the fragile Tory coalition together, giving the feral media and disheartened party base something to screech about.

There is no evidence for this proposition. Indeed, the evidence suggests Sunak is an enthusiastic culture warrior who shares the values of the woman he made Home ­Secretary. The idea supposedly “centrist” Tory PMs have secret doubts and private reservations about their government’s ­policy isn’t new.

This kind of scuttlebutt used to surround David Cameron, and Theresa May, and ­Boris Johnson to a lesser extent. Greening is just one of the lost moderates ­projecting their own rejected policy preferences on to their leader – hoping to find doubts and ­anxieties about the party’s current ­rightward trajectory which aren’t there. In politics, what you do is you and you need to live with the choice you make. You can’t cross your fingers and ask people judge you on the good intentions you never acted on.

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But according to Greening (above), Sir Keir and Reeves have this magic mix of “­purpose and authenticity”. The “Labour ­leadership may be accused of being dull in ­comparison to the heady years of Cool Britannia and New Labour,” she argues, “but it’s working because it’s authentic”.

A stranger diagnosis of the state of ­British politics, I’ve never heard. To look at the current Labour leadership and think, “here are plain-speaking folk ­being true to themselves” requires either a frontal lobotomy or the application of a healthy dose of mescaline.

Even Sir Keir’s biggest fans rarely credit him with a profound set of core ­commitments consistently adhered to – because the power-hungry artificiality and artifice of the Labour leadership is what its proponents tend to regard as its greatest virtue. The polite phrase for this is “keeping your eye on the prize”. Truth and consistency have been the first casualties on Labour’s path back to power.

But whether you support or reject the ­approach Starmer has brought to the ­Labour Party – the purges, the message discipline, the policy reversals – he’s ­patently not a “pretty straight kind of guy”.

Since he was first elected Labour leader on a series of policy pledges, Starmer has not only junked the policy pledges which won him the leadership, but has rubbished them one-by-one as madcap, economically irresponsible and unpatriotic.

Dishonesty about who he is and what he wants to do with power is the origin story of the Starmer project.

What’s particularly provoking about the runaway favourite to be the next prime minister is the priggery which ­accompanies all this – let’s be ­diplomatic – “political flexibility” about core ­commitments, friendships and those parts of the Labour Party the media have agreed should be isolated and expunged.

Perverse as it probably sounds, some folk like lying politicians. The starting point for much of the British media and for the right of the Labour Party is that hoodwinking the left into supporting him and then pissing all over them from a great height is the peak of tactical ­brilliance and ruthless cunning.

Lying to the left isn’t like lying about your Covid parties – it’s the mark of a ­senior statesman who is prepared to ­sacrifice other people’s delusions for The Cause, even if that means briefly ­pretending you share their delusions to get elected.

No modern politician can forgo ­concerns about the presentation and pitch. And in pitching, issues must be ­finessed. Constituencies squared. ­Beartraps ­avoided. When complete ­candour may be politically damaging, a wise politician vacillates and dodges. Someone on Twitter had a nice phase for what modern politics often requires of the people practising it – “rationalised dishonesty”.

Some politicians go further, incorporating hocus pocus into their personal brand. Bill Clinton wasn’t dubbed “Slick Willie” for nothing.

Politicians like Peter Mandelson and George ­Osborne thrived on the idea that they were masterly proponents of political cynicism and the black arts of PR – and made no effort to hide how delighted they were with the fearsome reputations they cultivated.

The National: Former first minister Alex Salmond spoke to the National at the Alba conference in Glasgow

Alex Salmond (above), in his pomp, had a ­similar quality. Craftiness and the knack for a cutting put-down won’t make every voter warm to you – but there’s a ­constituency for this edgier kind of ­political performance.

With Johnson, we’ve seen a politician thrive on a well-earned reputation for ­roguery and a dishonest twinkle in either eye. A flair for being economical with the actualité was intrinsic to his ­political brand and appeal. Some charlatans’ ­magic trick is playing a character – the ­narcissist with the saintly public persona – but Johnson’s braggadocio celebrated ­itself with a knowing wink.

To adapt a great line from The Lion In Winter, Johnson’s brand said: “I’m lying. You know I’m lying. I know you know I’m lying. And you know I know it.”

Is this authenticity? It’s certainly ­monstrously insincere and self-­serving – but nobody who supported him can ­credibly claim they were gulled by ­someone they believed in good faith was an honest man. He was authentically ­inauthentic.

Starmer’s march to power has had a number of low moments – but his LBC ­interview on Gaza and subsequent ­attempts to deny the evidence of our own senses about what he said about how ­Israel is entitled to defend itself may be the lowest so far.

Politicians can misspeak. On the spot, on air, in the moment, trying to be ­careful about your words – it’s all too easy to slip up. Waiting for days to see if the ­political weather changes, and only then giving an interview saying, “I’m glad you’ve given me the chance to address this” – as though the leader of the opposition was sitting around gagged, waiting for a friendly journalist to pop the question – beggars belief.

It should be impossible to watch this performance and think, ‘here’s a candid guy who knows his mind and speaks it’.

There’s no vice in a politician articulating a considered position in a considered way. There’s no vice either in politicians changing their mind when circumstances change. The media of politics means we now get managed self-presentation rather than a careless communication of who our representatives are and what they think. If you think you aren’t watching a performance, then chances are you’ve been blinded by the production values.

But what rankles – and troubles – me about Starmer’s priggery is this insistence he is Mr Probity, while his political career uncontroversially embodies all kinds of cynicism, hackery and spin. Even if you applaud all this perfidy – and there are plenty of folk in the British media who’re happy to toast all his reversals, broken pledges and lies as “savvy politics” – I can’t think of a less “authentic” leading UK politician than Starmer in my puff.