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Brighton crock

Starmer struggles to speak his mind – about his own party


“It’s a complete crisis!” Keir Starmer told Andrew Marr, in words that have served Labour leaders well at the opening of their conferences for at least a decade.

He was speaking not about his party’s current parlous state two years after its worst election result since the war, nor the sense of drift that surrounds his own leadership, nor his struggles to sell his rule changes, whatever they are, to whichever sweaty room currently controls the party machine. His subject instead was the inability of motorists to fill their cars from the abundant lakes of petrol that ministers assure us exist all over the country.

Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, had been touring the studios earlier to assure us that, while the government was dealing urgently with the fuel shortage, there was in fact neither a shortage not any need for urgent action. “This is nothing new,” he told Marr. There’s been a shortage of drivers “for a very long time,” he said. The government had known about the problems for months, he said. This was not as reassuring as he seemed to think it would be.

Starmer was at his best hammering home this point, accusing the Conservatives of failing to prepare for the impact of Brexit. “We have had five years for the government to work through the consequences,” he said, although officials were somewhat hampered in this by ministerial insistence that the only consequences of Brexit would be pound notes falling from the sky.

Where Starmer struggled was the moment the questions turned away from “What is the government getting wrong” and towards “let’s talk about Labour”. A thick plastic film covered the window behind him, making the view of Brighton’s seafront wobbly and out of focus. It began to feel like a metaphor for getting the Labour leader to talk about his party.

Talking about his rule changes, he stressed the problem of MPs who had feared being sacked by their local parties, but he didn’t mention why they might experience such a sensation. What, one might have wondered, was the reason it was so important to increase the amount of support from MPs that someone needed in order to stand as party leader?

More willing to speak her mind, though on easier questions, was Angela Rayner

We didn’t need any explanation, of course, because we all know. But if you’re looking for problems with Starmer, a good place to start is his struggle to say out loud whether he feels Jeremy Corbyn’s legacy is a good one or a bad one.

Later on Sunday, more than a quarter of the votes cast at the conference were against rule changes designed to tackle anti-Semitism. That’s quite a lot of support for the nastiest part of the Corbyn legacy. Will the party leader say so? Don’t bet on it.

More willing to speak her mind, though on easier questions, was Angela Rayner. She’d been recorded late on Saturday evening describing the government to activists as, among many other things, “a bunch of scum”.

Did she, Trever Phillips asked her on Sky, want to apologise? Did she hell. Rayner wanted to explain, at length, all the ways in which members of the Cabinet were scum. Phillips had clearly expected her to squirm on the point, but instead she doubled down, listing all the things Boris Johnson had written and said over the years.

“Anyone who leaves children hungry during a pandemic and can give billions of pounds to their mates on WhatsApp, that is pretty scummy,” Rayner said. It was, dare we say it, Johnson-esque: if the Conservatives want to spend the week debating whether they’re racist crooks, Rayner is very happy to help.

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