Tear Starmer: The Labour leader’s lachrymose performance for Piers Morgan gifts the media an easy target...
... and it's not going to change the minds of commentators or voters.
Making a robot cry isn’t actually a terribly difficult technical challenge — get your hands on some actuators and hydraulics, and your artificial pal could soon be weeping with the worst of them. What’s harder is getting an android to develop policies that actually appeal to people and not simply scan the database with the query: “Things Tony Blair did but worse”.
Keir Starmer shuffled onto Piers Morgan’s Life Stories last night with one goal: To beat the Voight-Kampff test and persuade Britain’s most bilious blade runner and the public as a whole that he’s a real boy with real feelings.
On the main broadcast TV channels last night, his competition was a documentary about a hospital, a repeat of QI, the final part of a crime drama, an investigation into anti-vaxxers, Ben Fogle, and Anne Boleyn. Thankfully the Starmer interview concluded just before Naked Attraction on Channel 4, meaning it didn’t have to compete with another lot of unconvincing bollocks.
The aim of the Life Stories appearance was the same as the mooted fly-on-the-wall documentary about Starmer: To encourage the public to see him not as a droid whose genitals can be replaced with a whisk or hoover attachment, but as a genuine human man who loves his family, has suffered, and will suffer for you if you’ll just vote for him goddamn it.
I’d call it a Faustian pact but Piers Morgan is more of a minor shit demon than the big boss Satan himself. Regardless, doing Life Stories was a high risk and tabloid courting decision by Starmer. That’s largely because most voters will not watch the interview itself but consume clips via social media and form their opinions based on what other parts of the media tell them about the encounter.
So what will Team Starmer feel this morning as they scan the first night reviews?
The Daily Mail deploys its TV reviewer, Christopher Stevens, to dissect the big wankerweight bout between Keir and Piers. He writes beneath the headline, Keir Starmer's tears for Piers cried out for sympathy: CHRISTOPHER STEVENS watches the Labour leader doing all he can to dispel his 'robotic' image on Piers Morgan's Life Stories, that:
Come on, guys. Why aren't we all smitten with Sir Keir Starmer? He's got brains, movie star glamour, wry sitcom humour... everything an ambitious politician requires.
Except, of course, votes. Labour's support has floundered since Sir Keir stepped in as leader last year. Could it be that, by assembling a figurehead from numbered components like an Airfix kit, the party apparatchiks have created something plastic and hollow?
After discussing Starmer’s genuinely moving discussion of his mother’s illness and death, his troubled relationship with his father, and the tragic sudden death of his mother-in-law, Stevens concludes:
We were left with a portrait of a principled family man, an Oxford-educated lawyer, married to another lawyer, with middle-class values and a mildly socialist streak. Remind you of anyone? Keir Starmer is 'a pretty straight sort of guy', as Tony Blair liked to describe himself.
With the friendly assistance of Piers, he is revealed as Blair Mark II. The question is, wouldn't a robot be preferable?
The tears and the personal revelations brought a modicum of sympathy from The Mail but it confessing all to Morgan didn’t (and was never likely to) shift its view of the Labour leader.
While Starmer still seems to believe that he can genuflect enough to the tabloids for them to embrace him and shun Boris Johnson, it’s simply not going to happen. They’ve decided he’s boring and boring he will remain; “Blair Mark II” — a nineties throwback as unwelcome as the return of Kappa popper trousers or Hypercolor t-shirts.
The Sun, which published three pieces previewing the interview — one about photos of Starmer as a student, one about the questions on drug-taking, and one generally outlining what was discussed — has published SEO chasing “Who is Keir Starmer?”/”Who was Keir Starmer’s mother?” articles since it aired but no review. It’s not that bothered.
The headline on its main preview piece speaks volumes:
Over at The Daily Telegraph, the spiritual and once and future financial home of Boris Johnson, Life Stories gets two pieces — a news report on the interview headlined, Sir Keir Starmer: My father only told me he was proud of me once, and analysis from Ed Power1 with the top line, Piers Morgan's Life Stories: Sir Keir Starmer, review: a reminder that both men are human.
Like Stevens in The Daily Mail, Stevens gives Life Stories four stars as a piece of televisual entertainment but — to use an old music journalism line — it reads like a three. Power writes:
Starmer emerged reasonably well from the grilling, in so far as there were glimmerings of a personality under the brooding barrister persona. With his floppy fringe, and years living in trendy squalor in London in the Nineties, he resembled a character from a Richard Curtis romcom – albeit with most of the “com” taken out.
Hardly a glowing review if the best that can be said of Starmer’s performance is that he showed “glimmerings of personality”. A further upgrade to his interpersonal warmth software is required urgently.
Beyond the personal stories of grief, love, and family, Power — taking an unsurprising line for The Telegraph — rates the political content of the chat poorly. He continues:
[It] was by the numbers and over-rehearsed by comparison. Confronted with Tony Blair’s warning that Labour required “total deconstruction and reconstruction”, Starmer said the party had to stop “looking in on itself” and to “display pride in our country”.
He didn’t sound particularly filled with pride – or any other emotion – as he said this. In place of the grieving son we’d met earlier he was just another voter-seeker on the stump.
Starmer is almost incidental in Power’s review, which is far more interested in how Piers Morgan, currently in his post-Good Morning Britain wilderness, came over. His conclusion is dedicated not to the replicant Labour leader but to Britain’s most bilious bladerunner:
… Morgan’s tabloidy interrogation sidestepped Starmer’s defences and uncovered flashes of raw humanity. This was a meaty interview with lots for the viewer to sink their teeth into – regardless of their politics or their feelings about previous Morgan controversies.
Over at The Times, Starmer’s prostration before Piers was given two pieces — a news article headlined, Keir Starmer sheds tears in Piers Morgan interview, from political reporter Eleni Courea, and a sketch by suppurating bog troll Quentin Letts — Labour’s robotic QC is a real cutie on the QT.
Courea’s piece, after covering the tears and trauma, references Morgan’s Paxman-lite line on drugs — he asked Starmer 14 times if he’d taken them as a student — and makes reference to a typically dodgy story from drink-driving expert Paul Staines of the Guido Fawkes blog:
Starmer refused 14 times to deny taking drugs and said: “We worked hard and played hard.” Labour rejected a report by the Guido Fawkes website that Starmer had boasted about taking LSD to a group of rave organisers he defended in court in 1989.
As a side-note, this is a good example of the so-called respectable broadsheets laundering stories from Guido Fawkes into their pages. The story — Starmer’s Acid Trip Confession — is balanced on a single claim tied to a single fact. Staines, who promoted raves along as well as hard-right militias, recalls that Keir Starmer, then a barrister for the National Council for Civil Liberties, represented the organisers of a Sunrise rave in a case against Thames Valley Police in 1989.
Staines links to an image of a news report from the time which includes Starmer describing police setting up roadblocks and confiscating equipment as “an incredible abuse of police powers”. But he then leaps from that fact to a claim that outside court…
… the suited, and frankly square, young barrister chit-chatted with his sartorially psychedelic clients … he told them (perhaps in an effort to boost his street credibility) that when he was younger he had taken LSD.
Of course, Staines doesn’t directly quote any sources beyond his own memory. But now, through reference to the Guido story, Courea has put the claim into the pages of the so-called “paper of record”. Expect it to appear again soon.
Letts’ sketch drips with his usual sarcasm and smarm. He writes of Starmer’s tearful moments:
Television loves making interviewees cry. Ask them about family bereavements, zoom in close with the camera and harvest a glint of tear-filled eye. Ratings gold. Sure enough, Starmer was asked about his late mother, a sunny-smiled nurse who suffered from Still’s disease. The emotional screw was turned. Starmer was asked to describe her last days, when his father refused to leave her hospital bedside. In zoomed the camera, tight on Starmer’s eyes.
The same happened later when Morgan, artful operator that he is, raised the death of Starmer’s mother-in-law during last year’s Labour leadership election campaign. Another slight choke of grief from Starmer as he described how he suspended his campaign to support his wife. Let’s just say his display of emotion was a lot more convincing than Matt Hancock’s recent effort on breakfast telly.
It’s unsurprising that Letts, the kind of hobbit who would be expelled from Hobbiton for harassing the Sackwell-Bagginses over a privet hedge, is cynical about Starmer’s emotional moments. I suspect the last time Quentin Letts cried was when he was ditched by The Daily Mail.
Letts’ acid is not on the surface of the sketch but roiling beneath it; the bite is in very specifically chosen words. Take this bit…
The show had opened with a pre-interview segment of Morgan saying it was going to be “a challenge” for the “robotic” Starmer. “This is a real opportunity to explain who I am and why I am,” intoned the interviewee.
In the manner of these things we were straight into important business: Starmer’s grooming habits. He used moisturiser “every day”. Asked to name his “best physical feature”, he replied without hesitation: “I have to go to my hair, don’t I?” We also learnt that he was “romantic” and once featured in a “list of hotties” on the Your Barrister Boyfriend website.
… where you can just picture the writer’s sneer as he chuckled to himself about moisturiser and that Barrister Boyfriend website. Letts didn’t need to stretch to find the embarrassment in Starmer’s TV appearance; it was all there for the taking and he simply had to jot it down.
James Forsyth of The Spectator — best pal of the Chancellor and husband of the government employee Allegra Stratton — rated it as Starmer’s “best prime time exposure”, echoing the verdict of Times Redbox editor Patrick Maguire who deemed the show…
… a gamble worth taking [that succeeded] in drawing out the man — or, more accurately, bloke — often described by friends but seldom seem in public.
HuffPost’s Paul Waugh echoed those sentiments, saying the interview was…
… probably the best mainstream, primetime PR Keir Starmer has ever had. I suspect a lot of the public will have seen what he's really like for the first time.
That’s assuming rather more of the population is watching ITV at 9.30 pm on a Tuesday night rather than Netflix/NowTV/Amazon Prime/Disney+/YouTube/wet paint drying…
The Guardian’s John Crace delivered another ‘good’ review. Under the headline The real Keir Starmer – tears, blokey bonding and no politics, he writes:
Not that Morgan didn’t ask about the current state of the Labour party, more that he appeared to have no real interest in hearing any answers. No sooner had Starmer lapsed into standard political generalisations about talking to the country and his three priorities being education, the economy and social care, than Piers interrupted. Would he raise taxes? No scrub that, what would he say to Boris?
“I’d say: ‘Move over,’” Starmer said tamely. And if he was on a football pitch, he’d knock him over. If only. The Labour benches long for Keir to stop being so polite and pick up a yellow card for a studs-up professional foul on Boris at prime minister’s questions. And that was that. There was only so much catharsis both men could take for one day.
That crack about knocking Boris Johnson — the man who infamously thundered through a tiny child while playing rugby — felt as convincing as Ed Miliband’s “hell yes, I’m tough enough moment”, like the before picture from a 1950s advert for muscle building equipment claiming to be up for a fight.
The New Statesman’s Rachel Cooke was unsurprisingly kind. Her piece — Keir Starmer played Piers Morgan at his own game and won — concludes:
… I’m more impressed by the Labour leader than before and feel more protective of him. Is this down to Starmer himself, or is it thanks to the magic (ugh) worked by his interlocutor? Morgan, egomaniacal to the last, would doubtless insist on the latter: if Starmer does ever make it to Number 10, expect a column by Morgan in the Daily Mail loudly claiming the victory as his own. But I beg to differ. I think Starmer played him at his own game and won. Such ruthlessness! Wouldn’t we all of us like to see more of it?
Perhaps Cooke has a TV that can tune into alternate realities. What I saw was Morgan manipulating the Labour leader as he is wont to do and delivering the tears he’s paid to solicit, like some kind of creepy tabloid fairy.
When Guido Fawkes concludes that “Labour spin doctors will be pleased with that…” they should be worried. But they won’t be.
Team Starmer will be able to persuade their boss that Life Stories was a triumph because none of the reviews was overly cruel about him, but they’ll be wrong. The show will do nothing to make the general public feel more positive about Starmer. Those that do watch clips from the encounter or read the analysis of it will feel sorry for him — not something that serves wannabe leaders well — while those that don’t will continue to see him as a malfunctioning robot that just happens to be able to cry.