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17 February 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 8:49am

Sasha Swire’s Diary: Squabbling birds, Priti Patel’s bloodlust, and why Keir Starmer won’t save Labour

Patel has always been an arch-opportunist, just like the buzzard – but I’m afraid Starmer is as grey as a plump pigeon, afraid to stray into less familiar territory.

By Sasha Swire

A great spotted woodpecker is headbanging on the wooden beams under the thatch of my Devon house as I write. Woodpeckers do this to attract mates and establish territory; they cannot sing. Unlike me, they have an area of shock-absorbing tissue that protects their brains from the impact of the blows that come between ten and 40 times per second via their bills.

Up until recently the news has had the same effect on me: bang, bang, bang it went, shifting responsibility on to someone or something else, and making those trying to find a solution defensive. But, at last, here is some respite: Trump gone, a Brexit deal (with hiccups), vaccine success in roll-out and technology, better command and control in No 10 since Cummings’s departure, deaths down, infections down. Coming out of lockdown soon. Snowdrops out.

Violent reaction

There’s lots of bickering on the bird table. I watch a robin, all dressed up in his Brigade of Guards’ red uniform, squaring up to another bird. Soon enough his rival is somersaulting to the ground and the raging robin has his jackboot on her throat, warning her to stay away from his patch. It feels like watching a chaotic online meeting of Handforth Parish Council. Not too long ago something similar occurred in a village around here, when the exasperated chairman, trying to call the meeting to order, felt the need to deck one of his councillors because he wouldn’t shut up. Unfortunately, the vice-chairwoman didn’t quite catch his shirt sleeve in time and everything kicked off. That’s hands-on local politics for you.

Priti Patel takes flight

I hear the mewling cry of a common buzzard soaring above the meadow outside the house. It has the appearance of a reconnaissance aircraft riding the thermals, scouting enemy movements. So scary is this creature it can take down rabbits and crows; it has even attacked humans – lockdown sceptics, perhaps? The sky is hers. All other creatures are cowering in their homes, hiding in bushes, scurrying down lanes.

I have also been watching Priti Patel, one of the few female ministers allowed to make the leisurely flight from her department to the No 10 briefing room. Priti has always been an arch-opportunist, just like the buzzard. They are both highly adaptable, yielding and heeling away only to return with cat-like cries. (Remember her cabinet resignation over unauthorised meetings with Israeli officials?) She always looks as if she is sitting on a fence post or roosting in high, dark trees, waiting to snatch her prey. She’s probably hovering over the cliffs of Dover as I write, or lurking in the arrivals lounge at Heathrow. Not even a flicker of toleration for political pluralism or independent thinking with this one. Of course, that’s why Tories in the pastoral shires love her.

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[see also: How Priti Patel became unsackable]

Lesser-spotted Starmer

Here’s one for the Labour luvvies: I’m sorry, but you are living in cloud cuckoo land. Keir Starmer is not going to do it for you, even with the return of the Prince of Darkness, Peter Mandelson. A year in, Starmer has barely made an impression. Survey after survey shows Labour at level-pegging with the Conservatives, or a few points ahead, which, frankly, is pathetic in the 11th year of a Tory government. Covid death tolls, Brexit complications, the break-up of the United Kingdom: these are all golden opposition opportunities that have been missed.

I’m afraid your man Starmer is as grey as a plump pigeon found in the parks, buildings and bridges of urban environments. He is very intelligent but his inner digestive system rarely lands a deposit on his opponents’ shoulders. Home for pigeons belongs to one location, which is why they keep finding their way back to north London, mostly via the legal profession. They are forever afraid to stray into less familiar territory.

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[see also: A consensus is forming among the commentariat that Keir Starmer is not up to the job. Does it matter?]

But elections are not won or lost in Islington, Primrose Hill and Kentish Town. Labour already has that electorate. They are won in provincial towns and rural villages, in the regions, areas that feel forgotten, such as where I am, in bog Devon. Conservatives like me have to switch lanes for Labour to win. Starmer desperately needs to show his utility as a messenger before someone with much greater speed and manoeuvrability outpaces him mid-flight. The one from Manchester springs to mind.

Look, it’s going to be OK, we had boring greys as well: Hague, Duncan Smith, Howard (remember them?). You just have to take them out, bung them into a pie, put a lid on but leave a vent so they can still let off steam. We have always been really good at that. The taking out, I mean.

Indoor fireworks

Talking about taking out things – brace yourself, New Statesman reader – my husband is something of a shooting man (birds, feathered). Over breakfast, he makes a confession: “You remember all those wet cartridges I had?”

“The ones you rather dumbly put on the Aga to dry?”

“Yes, well, I put them in the microwave instead.”

He describes the scene that followed as being akin to Chinese New Year, of cymbals clashing and stars dancing under the ceiling, and a vibrating mutt yelping under the kitchen table with paws over his eyes. I slap my forehead and sigh deeply.

I know this is the country equivalent of rearranging the cutlery drawer, but though I’m not exactly a celebrity now, I’m not a Fifties housewife either. Dear God please get me out of here soon. Or at the very least, get him out of here. 

“Diary of an MP’s Wife” by Sasha Swire is published by Little, Brown

[see also: Sasha Swire’s diaries reveal the crass elitism of the Cameron government]

This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth