Jacket off, sleeves pre-rolled, Keir Starmer bounded onto the stage. It is difficult not to recall the fact that the last time I saw someone do that, they would turn out to be two months away from taking their country out of the European Union by mistake, and banjaxing all aspects of public life for what is now coming up for a full decade.
But that sense of unease soon gave way to an even bigger one. Something strange was happening. Unprecedented even, certainly in recent times. I glanced around the room. Had anyone else noticed it? Had they realised? That here, on this very day, at this precise moment, it really did appear to be the case that a leading, mainstream, frontline British politician was actually giving a good speech.
I know such a thing has happened before. I’ve seen it on YouTube. At one point I might even have studied it at school. But I’ve never, not in seven and a half years of following them all around, actually seen it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears.
This is not to say that there haven’t been any good speeches in all that time. There have been one or two. Michael Gove once gave a very good one, in which he explained why Jeremy Corbyn is kind of an antisemite, but that’s still very much the sort of thing that makes the casual listener want to die.
This was different. What was going on? This was an actual, meaningful dissection of the problems the country faces. There were words that precisely articulated how ordinary people feel. He spoke of hope, but he also appeared to know that the country does not want or expect him to be Barack Obama.
He talked of “the burden of living without the real hope of a better future. Not the sort of hope that fires grandiose, utopian visions – I don’t mean that. I mean the basic, ordinary hope we used to take for granted. The sort of hope you can build your future around.”
And that’s it, really, isn’t it? That is the problem. That practically no one in the country can for the life of them work out how they can possibly hope to lead the simple, semi-prosperous life that used to be so easy.
As chance would have it, it was only when the Labour Party announced that Starmer would be doing his speech that Rishi Sunak rushed forward with his own version, delivering it yesterday in the exact same business park in east London.
No doubt this was thought very clever, but it is hard not to think that the plan has backfired. If you want to try to assess the relative merits of the two leaders who are likely to contest the next election, you could hardly ask for more than for the pair of them to deliver the same type of speech, in the same place, one after the other.
There can be no doubting whose was superior. Sunak is finding it hard to conceal that after 13 years of Conservative government, he is just as knackered, exasperated and out of ideas as everybody else, and at the same time he has to produce five more of them.
None of this is to say that Starmer has any answers himself. Or if he does, he still isn’t revealing them. On the nurses’ strikes, he simply said that the government needs to “get in the room with them”, as if that would make the problem go away. He was absolutely correct to talk about the futility of Westminster life, where a “huge day” usually means someone has “passionately described a problem and then that’s it”.
It was, by the end, starting to feel like another huge day in Westminster, the passionate descriptions this time coming from Starmer himself, and that being it. He reckons he is going to announce a series of “national missions” in the coming weeks, which will articulate how his government will solve all of Britain’s many ills. But he isn’t, he said, going to “get his chequebook out”; instead he is going to come up with a “costed plan” for “thousands more nurses and doctors”. Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.
He is also, it cannot be ignored, not a communicator from the very top tier, as plenty of politicians are. At one point he was asked to explain the difference between himself and Sunak: the kind of question you can only dream of. His answer contained five distinct utterances of “erm, you know” – the waffler’s tell.
Whether this stuff matters when it comes to the often boring act of governance, who knows. But it does matter when it comes to winning elections, and to the art of leadership in the modern age. He still hasn’t quite got it, but he’s certainly got more of it than people think. And there is still time to improve. Time, and indeed absolutely everything else, is certainly on his side.