Back to the future

HS2? Where we’re going, we don’t need high speed rail


“As a pragmatist, I want a pragmatic plan,” Keir Starmer was telling Victoria Derbyshire in what felt like the third hour of his start-of-conference BBC sit-down chat. Every ball bowled at him was dead-batted. He was determined not to commit news.

When everything is going your way, why take any risks?

Why would he? The Labour conference in Liverpool oozes a sense of imminent power. A couple of years ago, any company that cared to could rent a stand in the exhibition space next to the hall for 50p and a bunch of grapes. Now the place is overflowing with companies desperate to persuade the next government that the future is hydrogen, or farming, or financial services.

Some of the companies here didn’t bother with Tory conference last week. Others have stands that are noticeably larger this week. Businesses that have ignored the opposition for a decade are desperately hiring anyone who can prove they’ve met Yvette Cooper twice to be their new head of corporate affairs. The Spectator is having a drinks reception, although this may simply be an acknowledgement that the magazine has, in its own way, been quietly working for a Labour government for years.

When everything is going your way, why take any risks? When she was finished with Starmer, Derbyshire would be turning to Transport Secretary Mark Harper, sent out to continue clearing up the toxic sludge of the Conservatives’ week in Manchester. Labour spinners would be perfectly happy if Starmer’s interview was eclipsed by Harper’s squirming about the way that the roads and railways promised by Rishi Sunak on Wednesday had been downgraded within four days to “examples” of “the sorts of things” that might happen.

Above the stage was Labour’s new slogan: “Let’s get Britain’s future back.”

The Labour leader was dull and professional. He had the advantage that Labour’s is the final conference of the season, so he knew the trap questions that the BBC is asking each leader. Did he have something nice to say about Sunak? Of course he did, and it was a story that, happily, also made Starmer look good.  Would he like to have a look at a word cloud of things voters said about him? Self-deprecating laugh, mock dread, happy to play along. It wasn’t beautiful: “Nothing”, “Don’t know” and “Not sure” were writ large, but the Labour leader has sat behind the glass in enough focus groups now for none of these to have come as a surprise. “I’ve had a lot worse thrown at me in my life,” he commented.

All this stuff, of course, is the straightforward bit of retail politics, which is why it’s so interesting that Sunak struggles at it. The peculiar circumstances of the prime minister’s rise means the Tories find themselves with a champion who has never proved himself in the arena where the election will be fought.

Speaking of snippy party leaders who hate interviews, in the conference centre we were on the hunt for Jeremy Corbyn. We had been promised he would address a meeting of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Five years ago this would have been a hot ticket at Labour conference. This time, even in a small room, there were seats. Disarm? I wouldn’t be surprised to see Starmer photographed straddling a Trident missile and waving a cowboy hat before we get to the election.

With five minutes to go, the host announced that Corbyn wouldn’t be attending. Fourteen journalists immediately stood up and left. The former Labour leader, it turned out, had failed to sign up for the conference. It wasn’t clear if this was the result of lethargy or strategy.

The main conference hall was large, and full. Banners hung round the room listing Labour’s mission statements, every one of them a crowd pleaser: “An NHS fit for the future”; “Break down barriers to opportunity”; “Please remember to switch phones to silent”.

On the stage there was a fresh-faced young man, his eyes gleaming with enthusiasm. This was the 25-year-old new Labour MP for Selby, Keir Mather. “We need to offer a pragmatic vision,” he said, and suddenly everything felt familiar, yet different. Above the stage was Labour’s new slogan: “Let’s get Britain’s future back.” Pieces began to fall into place. Have the two Keirs ever been seen in the same room? Is one of them a time-traveller, sent here in a high-speed train customised by crazy old “Doc” Corbyn, the eccentric genius whose brilliant plans for world peace and universal broadband somehow never come off?

It’s not clear which Keir is the time traveller, and which timeline he’s trying to prevent, but let’s face it, we’re probably living in the bad one. One thing is certain: what with Britain’s current transport policy, Future Keir had better hope that where he’s going, he doesn’t need roads.

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