Happy New Keir! What better way to liven up a blustery January morning than a lukewarming speech about Labour’s values?
We’d gone to Birmingham, or at least Keir Starmer had: between the rain and the plague, I’m barely leaving the house, and certainly not the postcode. In any case, he was addressing a camera in front of a red Labour backdrop, so he could have been anywhere. British politicians do this sort of thing quite a lot. Theresa May once travelled to Florence, a city where you can’t turn round without gasping at something beautiful, to give a speech to British politicians and journalists in front of a white screen her team had brought with them. As so often with her government, it was hard to escape the thought that she’d missed something important about Abroad.
If Starmer’s Labour had a motto, it would be: “You can’t be too careful”
Starmer too had brought his own props with him, in the shape of flags. No one can be photographed without a flag behind them now, lest they be accused of hating Britain. Starmer had two right next to each other, to emphasise the depth of his love of country. Leaders now approach flags the way Gillette approach razor blades, fighting to see how many can be packed into a small space.
Starmer, whose claim to be the best that Labour can get may well be correct, opened by saying he wanted to “celebrate” Britain. “Think of all that the British have to be proud of. The rule of law. Her Majesty the Queen. Universal public services. A creative heritage that is the envy of the world. And a thriving civil society on which we have relied so heavily during the pandemic.”
It was an odd list simply for its vagueness. The only specific person Starmer was willing to praise was the Queen. When Hugh Grant, playing a fake prime minister in Love Actually, did the same thing, he listed Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter and both David Beckham’s feet. Since then, at least two of these have become problematic on the left, which may explain Starmer’s reluctance to pin himself down. If his leadership of Labour had a motto, it would be: “You can’t be too careful”.
In place of a motto, Starmer gave us Labour’s “Contract with the British People”. There wasn’t really anything in it that anyone could object to, but again, that’s probably the point. “I have a very clear idea of what a Labour government would look like,” he said, which means that at least one person does. It will involve, apparently, a lot of complexity and “painstaking work”. Starmer was leaning into his nice-but-dull image. His best hope is that the country, having eloped with Mr Wickham, is now more receptive to the steadier charms of Mr Darcy.
It was a speech with two targets, only one of them named. That was Boris Johnson, the popular entertainer who has, for implausible plot reasons, become prime minister. “Just when trust in government has become a matter of life and death, for the prime minister it has become a matter of what he can get away with,” Starmer said. The Tories were “a political party that has been in power too long.”
Perhaps he feels that praising Blair is triggering enough for his party
What made the speech interesting, insofar as anything did, was the person that Starmer never mentioned. He cited previous Labour leaders, Keir Hardie, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. Asked why he’d chosen them, he shot back: “They won.”
There is of course another former Labour leader, who cannot be named, who didn’t win. Twice. It was this leader who was surely the target when Starmer went out of his way to point out that Attlee helped found NATO and commissioned Britain’s first nuclear weapons. But while Starmer is aiming his guns at Jeremy Corbyn, he’s reluctant to admit doing so, probably for party management reasons.
It’s an interesting trick. Can he sustain it? Perhaps he feels that praising Blair is triggering enough for his party. He defended Sir Tony getting a knighthood, too, which will have upset a lot of people. Had he wanted to go one better, he could have pointed out that Attlee took both a knighthood and a hereditary peerage (his grandson, amusingly, sits on the Tory benches of the Lords).
The other way to mark the start of the year, of course, is a Boris Johnson press conference telling you that everything is worse than he previously assured you it would be. And so it turns out. Anyone, Johnson told the nation, who thought that that battle with Covid was over was “profoundly wrong”.
Like Starmer, he’s oddly reluctant to identify who these people are, even though he’s on first-name terms with many of them. Next time, instead of having a press conference, he should simply stick a note in the Tory MPs WhatsApp Group.
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