Theo Paphitis goes off-message as he invests time, but not cash, in Starmer

Sir Keir speaks to customers at the cafe
Sir Keir Starmer has led a tightly-controlled 'ming vase' election campaign - Stefan Rousseau/PA

I’m not sure what I’m covering anymore. Is this an election, or an episode of The Prisoner?

The scene: a Starmer-meets-real-people event at the Gabardine Bar in Basingstoke. It’s not a town Labour should be winning (majority 14,000). The Gabardine is not socialist territory (the window says “CHEESE & CHARCUTERIE”). Nor are there many real people about: just the bar staff, a couple of punters who came for a coffee and got trapped, and the press – hippos hungry for a story – who watch the window for signs of arrival.

The leader appears on the high street. “He’s got Theo Paphitis with him!” An old lady stops the pair – you can’t plan for everything – and they chat briefly. I think I lip-read the words “ you in Dragon’s Den”. Finally, they enter the charcuterie, Keir dressed in a sharp dark suit, Theo in a shirt undone practically to the navel. Turn on a glitter ball and it’s a disco.

Keir eats nothing, he drinks nothing. The owner complains about business being down, but from what I can see, Labour won’t help. “Country first,” says our next PM. “Clear plan for the future!” Then he addresses a semi-circle of TV cameras, shuffling from one t’other – BBC, ITV, twist, turn, evade – dodging bullets. The Telegraph asks if he agrees with Tony Blair that women have a vagina. He does, as do I – though if Tony says it, I find myself doubting it’s true.

What the heck is happening? This is the apotheosis of Keir Starmer, he stands on the brink of the biggest majority in a century – and yet the public is going to vote for him having hardly met him, his campaign so tightly controlled a philosopher might say it never happened. In that black suit, he really does look like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner, running for election in a village populated by actors.

I go rogue: let’s ask Theo a question. “Mr Paphitis,” I say, “would you invest in this man?”

“Absolutely!” he laughs. Otherwise, “I wouldn’t be here”. But behind the laugh, I realise I’ve accidentally touched a nerve. Pressed on how much actual money he’s given to Labour, he replies “it might be zilch at the moment” – but he’s here with Keir and “action speaks louder than words”.

The two men look at machinery
Sir Keir and Mr Paphitis also visited a jewellery college in Basingstoke - Stefan Rousseau/PA

Doesn’t money speak louder still? “Well, does it?” he replies. “Lots of people just give money, I’ve given my time.” Hmm – that’s what I tell myself when I go to church and leave nothing on the donation plate.

Was he ever a Conservative? Yes. Did he like Maggie? Indeed. So why not vote Tory? They’ve become self-obsessed and forgotten how to run the economy. Then a surprise, to him and to me: the other day “I found myself agreeing with Nigel Farage and I had to sit down and take a chill pill”. What about?! “He said Brexit didn’t fail, it is the government, the politicians who failed.” Around this point, Theo was gently led away by a staffer who felt he might enjoy talking to someone else, anyone else, perhaps the wall.

As they say in showbiz: “Never work with children, animals or celebrities.”