Attended the New Statesman’s first Politics Live conference this week in London - a chance to see and hear our political leaders and commentators in person.
Usually you only get the cut of a politician’s jib from a TV screen or radio studio. This was an opportunity to spend time in the same room as some of the top people running the country and those who aspire to and get a deeper, face to face dive at what they are about.
So, Keir Starmer, Sajid Javid, Ben Wallace, Wes Streeting and others all came along to the former County Hall right across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament to strut their stuff. There were about 200 of us in the audience generating a real buzz and first off was Keir Starmer in an hour’s chat with a journalist.
In two years, Starmer has done a very good job in turning the utterly rejected Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn into a Party that conceivably win the next election, although probably entering some form of coalition is more likely. A straightforward Labour majority is a very tall mountain to climb. As leader, Starmer has brought gravitas, trust and electability back. People believe he is a patriot and personally honourable.
But he lacks charisma and in the personality world of politics that can be deadly. Look at Johnson - charlatan, liar and all the rest but many people still think he is a cheeky chappy with ‘character’ and might vote for him. The right-wing media obviously want to keep dubbing Starmer as ‘boring’ hoping the mud will stick.
Yet watching Starmer in person – sure doing all the politician's tricks of by-passing some awkward questions etc – was an eye-opener. Do I think he is the most interesting man I have ever seen? No. But, he was very animated, humorous and engaging. Along with all his personal attributes putting him light years above Johnson, I’ll take that kind of boring.
Keir Starmer making a point
The real issue for Starmer is not his character. It’s can he over the next two years make all those millions now turning off Johnson and the Tories into pro-Labour voters. They don’t want to vote blue but they are not yet convinced enough to vote red. Starmer needs to start making the clear case for Labour and soon. He told the audience that was he was going to do. We will see.
Sajid Javid was interviewed by Andrew Marr – pretty obvious they are on friendly terms, Marr calling the Minister of State for Health ‘one of the good guys’. Not sure you can call anyone in the present Cabinet anything like that but Javid does give a ring of being at least sane – a remnant perhaps of what the old one-nation Tories used to be before the party was taken over by the extremists.
The Minister tried to sound meaningful and say how well he was doing but wasn’t very convincing. He plugged NHS reform a lot while saying it had the money it needs to improve. Scepticism hung in the air.
Sajid Javid - the room was sceptical
Ben Wallace, Javid’s co-Minister at Defence, on the other hand was very impressive in a round table with others, including old Labour stager Margaret Beckett, on world risks. He spoke very well and came over as very well briefed, confident and focused. Obviously, Ukraine dominates his world at the moment and it was something to have someone in the room before us who is actually taking decisions on the war.
Wallace said the UK was not taking defence issues as seriously as other threats, like pandemics, and hence not attracting the right level of budgets. The war in Ukraine would undoubtedly up defence spending.
A relatively new kid on the Labour block, Wes Streeting is a recent addition to the shadow front bench, at Health, and is already being touted as a future leader of the Party. There’s no doubt he knows this very well and is a very confident player. In a round table on the pandemic and what lessons are being learned, he was bang up to speed on the facts and figures, knowing his stuff inside out, yet every time made sure he blasted the Tories on their record both on and off health. If Labour get in at the next General Election Streeting will be a major part of that Government.
Also on the same panel as Streeting was former Health Secretary, the man who went up against Johnson for the Tory leadership and who hopes he could win another battle if Johnson goes, Jeremy Hunt.
Tall, angular and with a permanently wild-eyed look, Hunt has been busy reinventing himself for any new leadership fight. A little self-deprecating in media interviews, owning up to some failures while in office, just written a book on how to cut deaths in the NHS, Hunt wants to be seen as a safe pair of hands for the Tory Party if and when they ditch Johnson. I think he may be a nice guy, probably, but would be weak as hell as PM.
Outside of the politicians the New Statesman conference paraded some interesting people – three of note.
Sarah Churchwell, an American professor at the University of London, hugely entertaining on US/UK relations who described Trump and Johnson as children. Victoria Steele, Superintendent Pharmacist at Lloyds Pharmacy, one of the conference sponsors, who spoke extremely passionately on how chemist shops, so embedded in the community, are in the front line of health care. And, last but not least, Professor Sarah Gilbert of the University of Oxford, a key brain and driver behind the COVID vaccine, who not only provided an eloquent case for continued funding in her area but also received the biggest round of applause of the day.
The New Statesman’s Politics Live conference is to run again in 2023 and, with the next election then quite near (if Johnson hasn’t called a snap one to try and save his skin), I aim to be there.