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Keir Starmer gets the ball over the line without breaking sweat

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In recent years, the leader’s speech at the Labour party conference has always taken place on the last day. To let the event build to a climax, to keep the exhibitors and organisers happy and to stop everybody buggering off home a day early.

Keir Starmer decided to do things differently this year in Liverpool. He chose to go for broke on a Tuesday. To keep conference short and sweet. It’s been one of those rare occasions when everyone has been sweetness and light, going out of their way not to fall out with each in public and Keir didn’t want to push his luck. Quit while you’re ahead. Wednesday can look after itself.

That was the theory. In hindsight, Starmer could easily have held off another day as the Labour party is in its comfort zone. Seventeen percentage points ahead in the latest polls and unashamedly in control of the centre ground. Most MPs and Labour delegates can scarcely believe they are a government in waiting. There’s an uneasy mix of confidence and anxiety in the hall. Don’t count your chickens and all that.

But it’s hard not to when the Tories are falling over themselves to look like death cult muppets. As though a student theatre of the absurd has taken over Downing Street. Kamikwasi Kwarteng has done untold damage in a week and still appears to be under the delusion that the only thing he has got wrong is not to be even more mad. Give him a few more days … Meanwhile Librium Liz is holed up in No 10, refusing to come out. Probably because she’s terrified her own staff will refuse to let her back in. At a time when the country is falling apart, the prime minister has literally nothing to say. Not even “sorry”.

So all Starmer really needed to do in his speech was to turn up, not fall over and not sound like a complete halfwit. And he cleared that bar with ease. In fact this was one of his best ever speeches. He sounded plausible. His policies were connected. A man who actually had both feet in the real world. More or less. He is a politician, after all.

OK, so this wasn’t the greatest of oratory. Starmer isn’t a tele-evangelist whose every word would be held in rapture. Then that was never part of the deal. You can’t be taught charm and charisma. Nor can you learn to be quick on your feet. And the jokes were terrible. Luckily there were only two of them, but he fluffed the punchline to both. The Arsenal gag was telegraphed from last week. Someone should let him know, he doesn’t have to be funny. That it’s fine just to be serious. A joke in Starmer’s hands is a thing of pity. It’s as if he’s learned how it’s meant to work but is unable to supply the words. Or the timing.

But it was undeniably effective – somehow both emotionally and intellectually reassuring. And the conference hall loved it. Last year Starmer had to put up with repeated interruptions and heckles. This time he got 13 standing ovations. Not even Kim Jong-un can be guaranteed that. Starmer even brought the crowd to their feet when he talked of ridding the party of antisemitism. Only a small pocket of 20 or so delegates remained seated, refusing to clap. You can’t please everyone.

Starmer had come to the stage to a stadium rock soundtrack after a brief introduction from Satvir Kaur, the new leader of Southampton city council. Definitely one to watch. She was sharp, witty and in total command of the hall. Keir milked the applause and then got down to business. First stop was his happy place. The professional mourner. Sad face. Could we have another brief pause to remember the Queen and how the country had been united in grief? We could. There was nothing wrong with being patriotic with this iteration of Labour. The Palestinian flag was no longer the only one allowed in the conference hall.

Then we got Keir channelling his working class roots. Did we know that he was the son of a tool-worker? We did. As he’s told us countless times before. But then Starmer was trying to reach out beyond his core vote. People who might never have heard him before. Next we got Keir’s inner Deepak Chopra. He wanted us all to go on an inner realisation journey. To not just survive, but to become our best selves. It’s probably more fun than he made it sound.

On we went. Next up was the inner Tony Blair. Something he returned to several times, culminating in relabelling Labour as “the political wing of the British people”. These days Tony is seen as an aspirational goal rather than a hate figure. Then we went on to the Tories’ record of failure. Or as Kamikwasi would call it, “a 12-year vicious cycle of stagnation”. The biggest cheer was when Starmer announced a new publicly owned Great British Energy company.

It was all … fine. Starmer is never going to make a fortune on the after-dinner circuit. Actually, scrub that. Theresa May is raking it in. So there’s definitely hope for Keir. At least he can finish a conference speech without losing his voice, being given his P45 and the scenery collapsing around him. But this was more than good enough. All he had to do was get the ball over the line and he managed that in some style. Gary Neville would have approved.

Back in London, the Tories could only imagine the shambles their own conference would be next week. Librium Liz proudly announced its new logo. “Getting Britain Moving”. On the day mortgage lenders were shutting up shop. Still, maybe she was thinking ahead to the repossessions.

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Article source: The Guardian, 28/9/2022

2023-10-24 01:28:30.000000