Classy Keir Starmer dares to Blair, but leaves us wanting less | John Crace

Although he crossed the boredom threshold eventually, the toolmaker’s son showed he wasn’t as wooden as he’d seemed

He’s back. Not Keir Starmer, because he hasn’t really been away. Even if not everyone knew exactly who he was or what he stood for before the conference. But Tony Blair. After more than a decade of Labour politicians trying to eradicate their former leader from the party’s consciousness, Starmer dared to rehabilitate his memory. To make a real difference to people’s lives, you needed to be in government and he was proud of New Labour’s record. Labour was the party of patriots and when it came to levelling up, Blair and Gordon Brown had achieved far more in their time in office than the Tories had managed in the past 11 years.

And the delegates in the hall in Brighton seemed to love Starmer’s first conference speech to a live audience. As if they had been given permission to relive the glories of a secret past without first having to apologise for the war in Iraq. True, there were some hecklers. The first started within minutes of Starmer taking the stage – a lone voice singing, “Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn” – and they continued throughout. Some feebly waved A4 sheets of paper under the impression they were football referees showing Keir the red card, while others became increasingly random, shouting “Where’s Peter Mandelson?” and “Free Julian Assange.”

As hecklers go, they were definitely third-rate – if you really want to disrupt proceedings you make enough noise to get thrown out – and their main achievement was to play into Starmer’s hands. Not only did they make Starmer’s brand of politics look like the new mainstream – Corbynism was consigned to history with a passing swipe at the 2019 election manifesto – but they allowed Starmer to show he wasn’t the slightly wooden performer he sometimes appears to be. What seemed to be spontaneity may have been well rehearsed but his putdown that it was normally the Tories who were heckling him in prime minister’s questions at this time on a Wednesday was still pure class.

Starmer had arrived on stage after a brief introduction from Doreen Lawrence – endorsements don’t come much better than this if you’re trying to convince voters who don’t know much about you that you’re a decent man who’s done a serious job before entering politics – and launched into the list of current crises the Tories were failing to deal with. Gas price rises and energy company failures. Fuel and HGV driver shortages. Empty shelves.

For almost the first time since this year’s Labour conference started, it felt as if the party had stopped talking to and fighting with itself. Now its sights were set on the Tories and Starmer got in some well-aimed remarks about Boris Johnson being a phoney. A charlatan. A trickster with only one trick. A man who waited for someone else to clear up his mess. And Keir was willing and able. Most damning of all, Boris was a trivial person. This probably resonated rather better with the country at large than Angela Rayner calling him Tory “scum”.

The rest of the speech merged Starmer’s back and front story. Much of the personal stuff would have been familiar to those who had seen him interviewed on TV by Piers Morgan, but it didn’t feel stale or repetitive. His father’s job as a toolmaker not only allowed him to talk about the value of all forms of work but it opened the door to a gag about Johnson’s father having been a toolmaker of sorts. No one had seen that gag coming. And his story about meeting John and Penny Clough – who were both in the audience – after their daughter Jane had been murdered by her former partner – was not only extremely powerful and moving, it positioned Starmer firmly on the side of law and order.

About 45 minutes in, it gradually dawned on everyone that we were still only about halfway through the speech. Now the energy began to flag and people’s attention began to wander as Starmer went into details about making aeroplane parts and hospital robotics. The ideal leader’s speech should be an hour max – no one can take much more and if you can’t convince your party and the country that you’re the real deal in 60 minutes, you’re not going to do it by taking up another half-hour.

Luckily for Starmer, he had already done more than enough to sell himself in the opening stretch so a large section of the audience drifting off wasn’t a massive problem. In any case, Starmer did pick up the pace towards the end which included policy on mental health, education and the green new deal. He even dared to mention Brexit though he didn’t have any better ideas than anyone else about how to make it work. Or if he did, he was keeping his thoughts to himself. Now was probably not the time to tell voters they had made a hideous mistake by electing Boris to implement the hardest of Brexits.

Starmer finally wound up to a prolonged standing ovation. It hadn’t been the perfect speech but it had been one that had more than answered those who wanted to know if he had the energy and passion to cut it as Labour leader. Close your eyes and you could even imagine him as a possible prime minister. Especially if the Tories continued to screw things up. Starmer didn’t bother to hang around for the singing of the Red Flag that traditionally ends all Labour conferences. Nor did many of the delegates. Tony Blair would have approved. The New Labour revival starts here.

Contributor

John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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