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10 October 2023

Fear and glitter at the Labour Party conference

After a TV grilling, Sir Keir delivered his speech in the guise of an accountant lost in Glasto.

By Will Lloyd

A scene you may as well get used to: Sir Keir Starmer, fear in his eyes, being stretched on the BBC rack. Sir Keir hasn’t even fingered the nuclear codes yet, or been told the truth about the Royal Family (they’re man-eating lizards), and he already resembles a six-vodkas-before-breakfast TV detective who’s put away one too many child murderers. At least, that’s the vibe Sir Keir gave on Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg. Except this Sunday it was with Victoria Derbyshire. Sunday has a weird set-up: the interviewer grills politician alongside a few pointless luminaries. This time, filming in Liverpool for the Labour Party conference, they were Katharine Viner, the publisher of that Adrian Chiles column in the Guardian, and a pastiche businessman with a tie. He boasted about breakfasting with next year’s “Iron Chancellor” Rachel Reeves. Bro, at this point, if you own a shirt with a collar and you have not had breakfast with Reeves you are not a British businessman. I have friends in the City who have seen Reeves more times in the last six months than their own mothers.

[See also: Keir Starmer offers himself as a left conservative]

Anyway, Sir Keir was appalling, wooden, and a dead cert to be the next prime minister. He blinks too slowly and sounds like he has lost his keys up his nose. The awesome Derbyshire kept finding holes in his non-policy announcements. Sir Keir was reduced to babbling: My wife works in the NHS! So what?

In full command, Derbyshire asked Sir Keir to do some maths for her. He mentioned a statistic. Do more maths please, ordered Derbyshire. “We can’t just pluck a figure” squeaked Sir Keir. Derbyshire: “But you have just plucked a figure.” Sir Keir: “We can argue about figures but it won’t do anything.” This from the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service. Before he could escape, Derbyshire showered him in a “word cloud” – zingers produced by civilians when asked what they thought Sir Keir stood for. The biggest answer was “nothing”. The Labour leader smiled thinly. God, politics is humiliating.

As is television. On 9 October I tuned into Laurence Fox-less GB News. Labour Party conference is not a happy place for these majestic guardians of Great British Free Speech. Poor Tom Harwood, a posho correspondent who chatters like he has just discovered that you can get away with saying anything if you say it fast enough, was skipping around the booths searching for a delegate to interview. “I haven’t yet had a big hug from anyone,” gabbled Harwood dismally. Then he spotted a Labourite and went in for the hug/interview. No dice: the man gestured with his thumb and strolled away. Harwood ended up in the Labour Party merchandise store, forlornly commentating on a pair of socks. Still, GB News was doing better than TalkTV. It was not even at conference. I joined seven other viewers to watch an exclusive interview with “Britain’s Fattest Man”. I couldn’t help but think of the Tory parliamentary party as he described a desperate life strafed by miniature strokes and near organ failure.

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[See also: Keir Starmer’s speech made the Tories look like the opposition]

There were more enjoyable sights elsewhere, including Jeremy Corbyn being hounded by ITV News reporters. Corbyn may be the only man in Britain who has more stalkers than Harry Styles. Even better was Peter Mandelson swooping around: first on Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips, then GB News, where, literally appearing out of a black cloud, Mandelson thanked the channel for its “undoing of the Conservative Party”. The presenter Andrew Pierce scrambled so hard his toupee nearly fell off. “Keir Starmer is not Tony Blair,” added Mandy enigmatically, before he turned into a giant bat and flew away.

Would we get a sense of Starmer “the man”, wondered Sky News correspondent Ali Fortescue ahead of his keynote on 10 October. As opposed to, what, Starmer the elephant? The BBC’s Nick Eardley, beamed into the studio from the conference floor, suggested that Labour had a “spring in its step” as wheezing trade unionists staggered around behind him. Eardley filled the white noise when Sir Keir’s speech was interrupted by a glitter bomber. “Not the start the Labour Party would have wanted,” muttered Eardley. Well, duh. Fully fabulous, Sir Keir soldiered on to the end, looking like an accountant lost at Glasto. Sky cut straight to its speechless political editor Beth Rigby. Her microphone was broken. It was the first time any of the coverage made sense.

Labour Party conference
Various channels

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits