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1 June 2021updated 02 Aug 2021 11:06am

Keir Starmer played Piers Morgan at his own game and won

Even by Morgan’s standards, his encounter with Starmer was flatulently pompous. But the Labour leader came out of it unexpectedly well.

By Rachel Cooke

I will never not be astonished by Piers Morgan’s seeming utter conviction that an appearance on his so-called interview show, Life Stories, can make or break a person in the public mind; that he alone is the arbiter of popular success or failure. Why, I always wonder, doesn’t he seek help for these crazed delusions? He could perhaps talk to the therapist about his obsession with Meghan Markle at the same time.

Even by his standards, however, his much-trailed encounter with Sir Keir Starmer was self-regarding: so flatulently pompous, it was a wonder the whole set didn’t float clean away before our very eyes. “Only I can save you,” he seemed to be saying to the Labour leader as the programme began. “Only I can make sure you win every by-election from Batley and Spen on, until you are safely in Downing Street.” All Starmer had to do in return – “the challenge” as Morgan put it – was to be authentically himself, and thus to prove to the nation over the course of the next 50 minutes that he is not, after all, just a collection of vaguely left-leaning pixels topped off with the most surprising hair in politics after Michael Fabricant’s. (Obviously, I’m paraphrasing: Morgan is infinitely more blunt than me and, I like to think, a lot less witty.)

But authenticity of the kind in which Morgan is apparently so invested ultimately involves only one thing: tears. The interviewee whose lip doesn’t tremble is a poor interviewee indeed. Oh yes, it was very funny when Morgan asked Starmer if he was into male grooming. (Starmer suggested, in reply, that Morgan should moisturise regularly – advice that generously ignored the fact that the presenter is, in the eyes of many of us, more than oleaginous enough already). How we laughed when he revealed that Starmer’s middle name is Rodney! (Though it’s no worse than Piers, surely.) It is moderately pleasing to know that the Labour leader wore eyeliner in the days when he looked like Stuart Adamson out of Big Country, though the pleasure Morgan took in this discovery seemed a bit excessive to me (not everyone is as uncool as you, Piers). 

But we all knew perfectly well that the back story would be along in a minute, and with it, metaphorically speaking, a large box of man-sized Kleenex. Poke, poke, poke… Morgan is like a little boy with a stick. When Starmer explained that, as his mother lay dying, his father rang and asked him to let his siblings know, Morgan couldn’t help himself. “Was that cruel of your father?” he asked, possibly trying, and possibly failing, to sound more like Oprah Winfrey than Matthew Wright. Even as Starmer was focused on the task in hand, I sensed a momentary flicker of pure amazement. Eh? What? Cruel? Er, no. His devoted father simply didn’t want to leave his mother’s side. 

I’m not exonerating Starmer, by the way. We all know how much trouble he’s in. He didn’t have to do Morgan’s show; that he wanted to speaks both of his desperation and of a certain kind of ambition. But how depressing, too, that he should feel appearing on something like this is the only way to cut through. Will those who watched it remember later that according to one friend (the bastard child of Kilroy and This is Your Life, the series deploys fond clips of pals and colleagues for biographical purposes), some 75 per cent of Starmer’s practice when he was a human rights lawyer was pro bono? That his father, later the carer of his disabled mother, was a toolmaker who feared people looked down on him? Or will they focus instead on the ha-ha stuff, like the fact that, post university, he and his friends lived in a flat above a massage parlour that was so decrepit, they were advised the kitchen floor could collapse at any moment? 

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More to the point, will it matter either way? In truth, I don’t know. But I will say that I think that Starmer came out of it unexpectedly well, particularly when he talked of his father, a strange-sounding man with whom his relationship was clearly difficult (the biggest revelation of the night was surely that Rodney Starmer Sr. did not believe in television, and that the family did not have a set until Keir was in his teens). It is possible that the sane and the sensitive, having seen this encounter, may now sense that Starmer’s work ethic and attention to detail – his supposedly robotic style at the dispatch box – are the lid on a personality that was formed, at moments, in extremis; that his tightly reined manner may be an outward expression of the fact that he once had to keep chaos, whether emotional or practical, firmly at bay if he was to get on with his own life. 

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I don’t want to sound like an amateur shrink myself. Not for me the cheesy, trite suppositions of Morgan, Winfrey and co. However, I am surprised to find that having watched (“endured” would be a better word) Life Stories, I’m more impressed by the Labour leader than before, and feel more protective of him. Is this down to Starmer himself, or is it thanks to the magic (ugh) worked by his interlocutor? Morgan, egomaniacal to the last, would doubtless insist on the latter: if Starmer does ever make it to Number 10, expect a column by Morgan in the Daily Mail loudly claiming the victory as his own. But I beg to differ. I think Starmer played him at his own game, and won. Such ruthlessness! Wouldn’t we all of us like to see more of it?