I’ve got a brand new combine harvester

City lawyer turns rural heartthrob as Keir Starmer woos the farmers


“You deserve better than that,” Keir Starmer breathed into the microphone. “You deserve a government that listens.”

It used to be claimed that the Labour leader had been the model for Helen Fielding’s dull-but-hunky human rights lawyer dreamboat Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary. On Tuesday, we got a sense of where that idea might have come from. This happened, improbably enough, at the National Farmers Union conference in Birmingham.

Farmers and the Labour Party haven’t generally seen eye-to-eye. The last Labour government managed the impressive achievement of provoking the creation of a mass membership protest movement made up of people who lived in the countryside. Starmer, though, had come to Birmingham to change all that.

He had come to woo the farmers. To tell them that he knew they’d been hurt before, but that, if they could just open their hearts, Labour would be there to help them to love again.

It ought to have been a home game. And instead, they laughed at him

Earlier, they’d heard from the Farming Minister, Mark Spencer, a minister who actually has a farm. It ought to have been a straightforward gig for him. He talked about sitting on his tractor, and confidently discussed the advantages of sowing clover to reduce the cost of their nitrogen bill. These were his people, people who unironically wear woollen ties at the weekend, who worry about bovine TB and hedgerows. People who own multiple shotguns, and have a favourite.

It ought to have been a home game. Instead, they laughed at him.

Spencer had begun by introducing a video message from the prime minister. Rishi Sunak represents a constituency in North Yorkshire, and feels this gives him insight into the mind of the rural professional. He had, he told them, “rolled up my sleeves” and got up early to help with the milking once. Farming, he said, “is a way of life that’s passed down through the generations”. Like being a billionaire, he tactfully didn’t add.

In the questions session that followed, Spencer did his best to be upbeat. These were great times for farming, he told a doubtful audience. “Let’s be a bit more optimistic about the future,” he added, a line that suddenly had me wondering not simply about whether he really is a farmer, but also whether he’s even met one. He told one questioner how lovely Herefordshire was. “We can’t live off the view,” the man replied.

The peasants – well, the rural landowners – were revolting

The real trouble came when someone asked about efforts to stop animal disease coming in from abroad. “One of the benefits of Brexit,” Spencer said, “is we can now implement border controls.” At that, the audience fell about. The minister looked taken aback. Farmers are supposed to like Brexit. Minette Batters, the NFU president, explained that the border controls her members experienced were all one-way, making it harder for them to export without affecting imports. This was greeted with loud applause. By the time they got to discussing the Australian trade deal, it was clear that the peasants – well, the rural landowners – were revolting.

So when Starmer turned up after lunch, we wondered how the Labour leader, an inner-London MP, would get on with them. Does he even own a pair of wellies? He knew this was a problem, and he opened with an apology. “All too often,” he said, “we’ve come across as the party of urban Britain.” All that was going to change.

His speech had begun, as so many dates do, with a joke that didn’t work. “The local Bullring isn’t quite what you might think,” Starmer said, to an awkward laugh. Then he got down to business. “We do care deeply about the countryside.” He hit all their buttons: food security, labour shortages, trade problems, fertiliser costs. It was relentless. This, we realised, must be what it was like to feel the full force of a Starmer seduction.

He turned to the war in Ukraine. British farmers were “standing shoulder to shoulder with farmers who now till on the frontlines of freedom”. He promised a fair deal to tenant farmers: “They can’t plan properly if the soil beneath their feet isn’t secure.” He couldn’t have done more to make his audience feel loved if he’d pulled out a 12-bore and shot a trespasser.

It carried on in the questions afterwards. The most aggressive question was about the right to roam. Would a Labour government mean more townies trampling over crops? Starmer looked genuinely troubled. He pledged to ensure it wouldn’t. Batters was ecstatic: “You have, and we’re thrilled to hear it, committed to work with us.”

It was a thing to behold. Mr Darcy had galloped up from town and won their rural hearts. Forget wellies, it turns out Starmer has tractors, and he’s parked them on Sunak’s lawn.

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