This was perhaps the most heavily-trailed Kleenex moment in recent TV history. The advance clips of Sir Keir Starmer’s interview with Piers Morgan suggested that the Labour leader would well up on-screen as he recalled his parents’ deaths and the fate of a family pet that was killed in a shed fire.
We’re accustomed to seeing our leaders in tears. Mrs Thatcher wept after delivering her farewell address outside No. 10 in November 1990. She held it together for the speech itself but cracked up when she walked away from the microphone and towards her official car. Photos of her inside the vehicle showed her biting her jaw while her eyes brimmed over with emotion. 'Tears in the back seat,’ ran the Daily Mirror headline.
Before he became Prime Minister, Gordon Brown sobbed at the memory of his daughter, Jennifer Jane, who died of a brain haemorrhage within weeks of her birth. And Theresa May famously broke down as she reached the climax of her resignation speech in 2019. That harrowing moment won her plenty of sympathy because she was clearly fighting against an overpowering emotion. The mask of the Maybot finally slipped and she appeared before us as a real human being. But it was too late by then.
Sir Keir’s problems are similar to May’s. He’s seen as stiff, dull, cold and wooden. Sir Ikea Starmer. And he wants to position himself as the champion of Covid victims who died in care homes. So it would be politically convenient for him to suffer a meltdown over the memory of his elderly parents, even though they died long before the pandemic struck.
But on camera, Sir Keir’s emotions seemed genuine and unrehearsed. In the theatre, there’s an old saying: ‘When the performer cries, the audience doesn’t.’ An actor shouldn’t break down and sob too readily but should fight to suppress his feelings because that’s how people behave in real life. And this how Sir Keir’s came across.
He talked about his mother, Jo, who suffered from Still's disease which led to the amputation of both her legs and eventually to the loss of her ability to communicate. But her illness wasn’t the trigger for Sir Keir’s anguish. It was the timing. Jo died just before he was elected to parliament in 2015 so she missed the chance to see her son enter Westminster. His natural desire to make his mother proud had been thwarted. That’s what reduced him to tears.
The same thing happened when he recalled the tragedy of his father’s final years. Relations with his dad, Rodney, had always been ‘difficult’ and ‘distant’, he admitted. Rodney was in hospital looking after Jo when he realised that she was on the verge of death. He phoned Sir Keir and ordered him to alert the rest of the family. Morgan suggested this was a ‘cruel’ duty to impose on his son. Starmer disagreed. ‘There was no way he was going to leave that hospital,’ he said. Rodney was so devoted to Jo that he refused to spend a moment away from her side. Even when she was confined to a high-dependency unit, ‘he’d sleep on the chair outside.’
Her death seems to have broken Rodney emotionally. ‘He lived but he never recovered,’ said Sir Keir.
Finally there was the case of the dead dog. Widowhood turned Rodney into a recluse who lived in an ‘outhouse’ surrounded by mementos of his late wife including her wedding ring. ‘A shrine?’ suggested Morgan. With some reluctance, Sir Keir accepted that description. But the shrine was consumed in an electrical fire that occurred while Rodney was himself ill in hospital. The photographs and the mementos went up in smoke. The cherished wedding ring was recovered from the ruins, 'burnt and bent'. The poor dog didn’t make it either. But Sir Keir chose not to reveal the truth to his father and claimed instead that the pet was in good health.
Sir Keir dispelled the notion that he had chosen to open up emotionally as a political tactic. Reflecting on the interview while he was giving it, he explained his emotional response. ‘I’ve never talked about this. I’ve never had the conversation that we’ve just had.’
This was a surprisingly warm and appealing glimpse into Sir Keir’s inner life. All kinds of colourful details emerged. His abstemious parents refused to have a TV in the house while he was growing up, and when they eventually hired a black-and-white set, (with a lower licence fee), he had to beg permission to watch Match of the Day. When he was in his twenties he lived above a brothel in Highgate. ‘It got pretty busy after hours’. During his student years, he seems to have experimented with drugs but he was coy about the details. ‘We worked hard and we played hard.’ A few of his laddish mates appeared on camera to describe Sir Keir as ‘a party animal'.
Morgan asked him to name his best physical feature. ‘My hair,’ he said, without hesitation. And he dealt effortlessly with his status as a heartthrob. ‘Are you brimming with manly passions?’ said Morgan. ‘Always,’ said Sir Keir carelessly. He even admitted that he uses moisturiser on his skin.
It would be tempting to conclude that Sir Keir’s popularity will enjoy a bounce after this revealing confession. And yet the fact that he needs to explore his human side in a set-piece interview on TV suggests that something's not quite right. Making a huge effort to seem natural is hardly natural.