On the mediocre spectacle of Keir Starmer's Times interview and my theory of The Time of Noticing/Distraction.
Previously: The Jeremiad of the disreputable Hunt
The press' autumn statement coverage reveals just how little choice we have.
Keir Starmer had a distant father and a mother with a chronic illness; they kept donkeys; his dad was a toolmaker; he shared music lessons with Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook when Norman was still called Quentin; Keir might have been the inspiration for Mark Darcy in the Bridget Jones novel but actually wasn’t; he plays five-a-side; he loves his children; he’s “forensic”.
The template for a Keir Starmer profile is so established at this point that it’s like a Christmas schedule full of repeats. The story of his parents taking their Great Dane to Buckingham Palace on the day Starmer was knighted has been rolled out so often that it’s the equivalent of a Boxing Day afternoon showing of The Snowman.
Even the dissection of and excuses for Starmer’s blander-than-a-cream-cracker vibe are now all part of what’s expected from a piece on the Labour leader. That’s why this weekend’s Times magazine profile had to scrabble around for a cover line (“Yes, I’ve kissed a Tory”); it was the nearest dreary interviewing double act, Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester, got to a news line.
And, of course, the pair had an over-used quote to excuse the tedium; a line which itself a cliche of opposition leader profiles for 25 years:
Starmer admits that he feels a bit like a man carrying a precious Ming vase across a slippery floor – the metaphor that Roy Jenkins famously used to describe Tony Blair in 1997. “It’s a very big prize, winning a general election. I came into politics later in life, having done other things, and being in opposition is a complete frustration, because you’re not really changing lives. So, we have to be careful.”
In Decca Aitkenhead’s “call me Keir” profile of Starmer from The Sunday Times in April 2021, she wrote:
I’m reminded of Roy Jenkins’s famous line a few months before the 1997 general election. With all polls predicting Labour would win, the former home secretary and chancellor observed that Tony Blair took such care not to make any mistakes, he resembled “a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor”.
… Lord Jenkins recently offered guests at a Liberal Democrat dinner the analogy of a curator nervously carrying a priceless gossamer-thin Ming vase across a newly polished and treacherously slippery museum floor. There was an amicable criticism implicit in the image conjured by Jenkins; that Blair is too anxious about the perils of the journey, not risky enough in his impatience to complete it.
The “Tory kissing” section of the latest interview is designed to tell Times readers that they have nothing to fear from Starmer; he won’t even pretend to drop the vase, let alone smash it. But for anyone who craves a different government, it should be unsettling:
The Arsenal fan, 60 now but still playing in a nine-a-side football league on Sundays, describes himself as a “player-manager” on the political pitch. He is more comfortable building alliances than creating dividing lines. Some leftwingers proudly wear “Never kissed a Tory” badges, but Starmer says, “I’m afraid I’ve broken that rule,” although he won’t reveal with whom. “I’m not tribal. I’ve got very good friends who are Tories and long may that last.”
Without some element of tribalism, a passionate belief that your side has answers that your opponents do not, what is politics? An exercise in branding; a choice between oat milks, a question of marketing and delivery rather than belief.
But that’s what The Times profile is selling: The human embodiment of the paint on the walls of a rental flat, a shade of white Farrow & Ball would call Strongly Worded Letter of Complaint; a korma so mild that it would technically be classed as a cough medicine; the political equivalent of a quiet night in with an indifferent book and the nagging suspicion you need to read the gas meter.
It’s yet another attempt at reclaiming the term “centrist dad” as a point of pride, a heavy effort to persuade readers Starmer is just like them; Alan Partridge saying how much he enjoys Sunday Bloody Sunday because it “really encapsulates the frustration of a Sunday — you wake up in the morning, you’ve got to read all the Sunday papers, the kids are running around, you’ve got to mow the lawn, wash the car…”
Thompson and Sylvester — an ideal name for a boutique estate agency — stretch so much to make Starmer relatable that I’m surprised they haven’t claimed for hernia treatment on News UK’s private health care plan:
Starmer is an archetypal “centrist dad”. He is wearing a navy shirt and blazer with surprisingly cool black and orange trainers from Hugo Boss. He was thrilled to notice that his teenage son recently borrowed the shoes. “Without asking, of course. That was the point at which I realised just how good they were.”
The “surprisingly cool” Hugo Boss trainers1 are the same ones MailOnline described as “thought to be worth £200” and part of a “Tom Cruise-style ensemble” back in May. In fact, rather than looking like the Mission Impossible star, he resembled a geography teacher going undercover as a casual in an ill-advised 80s fish-out-of-water football hooliganism comedy.
Little has been learned since the days of zeitgeist tapes and Gordon Brown’s claim that he was a big Arctic Monkeys fan. Politicians are still expected to pretend they’re extremely normal despite the evidence of our ears and eyes, so we’re told:
Since becoming Labour leader, he has tried to keep “as normal a life as possible” for his family. Friday evening is “takeaway night” and on Saturdays Starmer cooks elaborate vegetarian meals while listening to 6 Music. He makes a point of watching his son’s kick-boxing and his daughter’s swimming whenever he can. “I don’t want to be the man in ten years’ time saying, ‘I wish I’d spent more time with my children,’ ” he tells us. “I’ve got a rule of a hard stop on a Friday at 6pm. I won’t be doing any work; I’ll be at home.”
“Elaborate vegetarian meals” is one of those phrases that becomes weirder and weirder as you roll it around in your mind. With no further detail from the writers, it could mean Starmer makes scale models of the Taj Mahal using a range of exotic produce or that — like much every other middle-aged man — he’s convinced that he makes “a mean curry” but you must, repeat must, be able to handle “a bit of spice”.
Aikenhead’s profile last year hit the same beats in practically the same rhythm:
His family life today sounds unremarkably metropolitan middle class… His wife does the cooking on weekdays, Friday night is “religiously takeaway night”, and at weekends Starmer, a vegetarian, cooks while listening to The Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show on 6 Music. “We’re going through a rigmarole every Saturday where I’ll come up with something that’s going to take quite a long time to cook, because I actually enjoy the process, and the kids’ll go, ‘Urgh, I’m not going to like it. Why can’t we just have pasta and tomato sauce?’”
… He can’t remember the last time he raised his voice at anyone — “probably on the football pitch” — and isn’t “much of a shouter”. Nor, he says, is he any good at lying. He last cried when his wife’s mother died in February 2020, can’t recall the last time he got howling drunk, nor the last time he felt intimidated by anything or anyone. To Corbynistas, there is no worse insult than “centrist dad”, but many sensible people would consider it a compliment, and I’d say it sums up Starmer pretty well.
This strategy of offering only bland details to which even the most ravenous focus group could not object is meant to reveal nothing but it’s actually very revealing. It is a kind of lying by omission. It’s humanity as described by an alien who only has access to Sunday supplements and Now! That’s What I Call Tasteful Indie compilations.
While Boris Johnson specialised in baroque deceptions, Starmer is a master of mundane mendacity; painting a picture where he’s never angry or intimidated and only sad on big socially-acceptable occasions. The profile’s lede promises “the real Keir Starmer” but this is a fully-valeted, disinfected Starmer, as fictional as the performance of whatever b-lister will play him in a future extension of The Crown.
The donkeys are a political metaphor in the latest Times profile…
Starmer thinks he may have picked up some useful tips for leading the Labour Party from trying to herd the stubborn and recalcitrant beasts. “If you want to get donkeys to do something they don’t want to do, it’s hard work. You’ve got to be patient. You’ve got to know where you’re going. You’ve got to cajole and gently get them to where you need to be. I’m sure there are quite a lot of political lessons in that.”
Sir Keir Starmer learnt how to manage the Labour Party from his experience caring for his parents’ rescue donkeys. “It’s quite tough to get a donkey to do something it doesn’t want to,” he says during our meeting in a hotel in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. “It probably gave me skills in life.
There’s an interesting bit of trickery in the “I’ve kissed Tories” profile where Sylvester and Thompson drag out a much-used description of Starmer from 2020:
A former classmate recalls the teenage Starmer as “a near-Bolshevik bruiser with a Bay City Rollers haircut”.
I was a diminutive, bespectacled, very uptight young Thatcherite, and Keir was a near-Bolshevik bruiser, with a Bay City Rollers haircut, a fat tie, an unbuttoned collar and an air of real roughness. The arguments began on the bus, and got more intense in 1975, when Thatcher became Tory leader, escalating through to 1979, when Keir and I were all but screaming at each other on a daily basis.
I suspect that, in part, The Times does not name Sullivan because he was writing for a Barclay Brother(s) publication, but also because the longer quote complicates the thesis being presented. Though while I doubt Sullivan was the Tory that Starmer kissed — that would be too interesting — he claims to still be one of his friends:
Keir, for his part, still loves hanging out with his old mates, has made time to stay in touch, and we’ve had some lovely reunions.
Starmer makes such a big point of being pals with Tories — in parliament and beyond — both because he believes that’s what he needs to do to win the next general election but also because they share a lot of common ground. The Times profile shows his Blair-style triangulation at work over and over again. Asked for his opinion on Rishi Sunak, he makes sure to say, “not all rich guys!” — the donors are listening:
He doesn’t see Sunak’s wealth as “an impediment” to being a good leader. “I don’t think he really understands what it’s like for the millions of people who are suffering at the moment, [but] I know plenty of rich people who do absolutely get it. I think it’s something deeper for him.”
The interview is not designed to push Starmer on any of his positions; it is as airbrushed2 as the images that accompany it. It reflects a shift in The Times and Sunday Times’ editorial position on Starmer.
In 2020, Caroline Wheeler presented the same anecdotes but with less enthusiastic commentary and illustrated by a candid photo of Starmer putting on a facemask. In 2021, Aitkenhead contrasted Starmer with the popularity of Boris Johnson. In 2022, Sylvester and Thompson deliver a soft-focus profile to accompany a soft-focus fashion shoot with styling credits ("Grooming Julie Read at Carol Hayes Management using ClarinsMen and Fudge haircare”).
I have a theory that when a party has been in government for “too long” in the eyes of the press and media, they experience The Time of Noticing, where all the bad behaviour, corruption, and bullying that hacks dismissed as “how the sausage gets made” begins to be worth risking source relationships for. As one political reporter said to me when I ran my theory by them:
It’s easy to report the damaging, disobliging, and destructive if you and your sources agree that the government is dead.
Conversely, once the consensus is that the party of opposition is certain to be the next government, they benefit from The Time of Distraction. The same political reporter agreed with this aspect of my theory too:
Consider the coverage of Starmer now. The concerns are suddenly broad brush rather than micro. Can’t imagine Beergate taking off in this context though perhaps that’s a bit naive.
Even the Mail titles, the propagators of Beergate, are starting to accept Starmer is likely to be in Number 10 by the end of 2024 or beginning of 2025. Just as Tony Blair benefitted from the microscopic analysis of the Major government’s scandals, Starmer’s Labour are getting light weather as the Tories continue to capsize in the heart of the storm.
The profiles are evidence of a failure of journalism. Starmer is not being challenged about what he will do as Prime Minister, how he says he’ll achieve that, and what those claims look like compared to his past behaviour. The repetition of his origin story and the same handful of anecdotes is PR, using the same technique as advertisers who show identical commercials in consecutive ad breaks.
The ‘real’ Keir Starmer won’t stand up while interviewers are happy to run through his greatest middle-of-the-road hits. And that’s another lousy kiss-off.
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I spent over an hour trying to track down the specific Hugo Boss monstrosities until finally, Diogo on Twitter found them. That effort did not produce anything besides this footnote.
I realise before anyone writes in that nothing is actually airbrushed anymore but Photoshopped just doesn’t have the same ring to it.