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12 June 2024updated 14 Jun 2024 10:51pm

Keir Starmer is no hero but he is a winner

This debate was a tactical victory, not a triumph.

By Andrew Marr

In a general election, head to head is best: but only when one of the heads belongs to an experienced interviewer. After the uninformative ITV “debate” between Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak, Sky and Beth Rigby did far better in Grimsby, rather brutally exposing the strengths and weaknesses of both men.

Initial polling confirmed a general impression that the Labour leader easily outperformed the prime minister. I felt the same. But neither man came away unscathed.

With the Defence Secretary Grant Shapp’s warnings of a Labour “supermajority” earlier in the day and the revelation that one Tory candidate, Andrea Jenkyns, is campaigning with pictures of Nigel Farage, not the PM, on her literature, it really does feel like the end of days for Mr Sunak. He seemed defensive, frequently cornered, and out of touch with the audience.

Ah yes, the audience: this was a proper democratic event, with all those arms-folded, unimpressed, solid, quizzical Lincolnshire faces, breaking to laugh openly at Starmer using, “my father was a toolmaker” – they weren’t laughing, as he seemed to think, at his family poverty, but at the routine phrasemaking. And they were deeply unimpressed (and profoundly unforgiving) of Sunak over his D-Day gaffe, not to mention his failure to grasp the realities of housing costs. They pressed the leaders hard for answers on schooling, tax and the doctors’ strike; they noticed, and so did we, when they didn’t get proper answers.

Rigby skewered Starmer most effectively over his backing for Corbyn and his socialist promises during his leadership campaign. His explanation – that he had never expected Corbyn to win, and then that he had looked at his promises and suddenly decided to put “country before party” – did not carry conviction.

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The truth is that in a party system, if you want a rejected opposition to become a real contender to replace a broken governing party, as is the case today, then it must squirm and wriggle its way to the centre ground where the electorate is. This wriggling isn’t elegant. It is unheroic and unedifying. It’s just, however, that it is also essential.

Almost everyone understands this, so what, really is the point? Does anyone believe that Keir Starmer is a secret expropriationist hard leftist, who would like to sell the nuclear fleet to Putin and flood the country with Islamists? No. So, the point of this line of attack is to dodge and zig-zag to get himself and Labour where it needs to be. Not pretty; but only the underside of a leader determined to win.

Unlike Sunak, Starmer sounded as if he understood the audience and had properly listened to the complaints of people unable to get a decent training, or a decent set of teeth. Interestingly, he did best when he faced out to a proper tough political choice: removing the VAT exemption on private schools to hire more teachers for state secondaries. A man genuinely worried about his privately educated children got small comfort. But the choice had been made and the audience mostly applauded.

This is politics: a clash of values. Halfway through what is already feeling like a very long general election campaign, we could do with more of it. Voters aren’t stupid. They understand hard choices have to be made, and that they sometimes include the word “no” even during an election campaign. Sky News and the people of Grimsby have done us all a favour.

[See also: Keir Starmer and the death of the working-class hero]

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