Here is the symbolic difference between Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer. Johnson at the CBI rocked up with a bunch of notes and mid-way through lost track of what he was saying, whereas Starmer turned up three hours early and rehearsed his speech in full twice. There were other important differences. You’d think, given the damage that Brexit did to Labour in the 2019 general election, Starmer wouldn’t touch leaving the EU with a barge pole.
But to a business audience that is deeply anxious about the rising cost of trading with the EU, Starmer listed how he would endeavour to negotiate better access to the EU’s market for the City, for farmers, for professional services. By contrast, the Prime Minister who gave us Brexit didn’t nod to the concerns of those many business leaders who think the terms of leaving the EU could and should be sweetened.
There was not even a mention of the fraught talks between his minister Lord Frost and the European Commission’s Maros Sefcovic on the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol that could yet spark a fully-fledged and destructive trade war with the EU. Starmer meanwhile talked of giving digital skills the same status on the school curriculum as numeracy and literacy, in a largely technocratic speech about economic renewal.
Whereas Johnson’s speech, when he was not stumbling, was largely a flag-waving exercise for the creativity of British businesses (the overblown Peppa Pig point, which the PM defiantly made in a second speech last night) and the green opportunities that await us.
To put it another way – and this is something I hear from lots of MPs, from both parties – there is a paradox at the heart of the great parliamentary contest: Johnson is the arch campaigner, the politician who is hardest to beat in an election campaign, but who doesn’t seem to be able to switch into patient and methodical prime ministerial mode; Starmer is patient and methodical as though he was already PM, but struggles to get the juices flowing as a campaigner.
One of the pair, Starmer, you could imagine being in Number 10, though not quite how he would ever get there. The other is in Number 10 and periodically makes even his own MPs question whether he’s quite yet worked out what the day job is all about – and therefore he never seems as safe and secure in his job as that 80 seat majority would normally guarantee.