Gyles Brandreth

The day Keir Starmer cried on me about his childhood

Gyles Brandreth

I have had a good idea. It may even be an important idea. See what you think. The other day I interviewed Keir Starmer for my weekly podcast, Rosebud. It’s so called because of the Orson Welles film Citizen Kane. Rosebud, you will recall, was the trade name of the sledge on which Kane, as a boy, was playing the day he was taken away from his home and his mother. My podcast is about the early memories of people in the public eye. I wanted to talk to Sir Keir because he aspires to be prime minister and I didn’t know much about him. We met at St George’s Park, the FA’s national football centre, near Burton upon Trent. He had had a full morning, chairing a shadow cabinet meeting, giving soundbites about football and avoiding giving soundbites about Angela Rayner. He came in, smiling but a little weary; he sat down and, for 40 minutes, we chatted.

I always start with my guest’s first memory. Sometimes it’s a moment of trauma (Nicola Sturgeon as a toddler falling down the stairs); occasionally it’s wonderfully Freudian (Rupert Everett as a baby being sprayed with a fantastically phallic garden hose). For Keir the toddler, it was the day the family’s long-anticipated Ford Cortina arrived. Starmer told me about his mother, a victim of Still’s disease, an incurable condition that causes painful swelling of the joints and organs, and how his father’s devotion to her kept him emotionally distant from his children. He had tears in his eyes for much of our conversation and when I asked him for his first recollection of profound sadness, he cried. The whole conversation gave me a flavour of the man. At the end when we stood up, we hugged. It wasn’t contrived. I did not feel I was being conned. I am still a Conservative.

This brings me to my bright idea. The general election is coming. In the run-up, we are going to get hours (days! weeks!) of political argy-bargy. There will be phone-ins and debates and fierce forensic cross-questioning from Laura Kuenssberg and the rest. Mishal Husain on her high horse, Robert Peston all over the shop. You know the form and you may love it. Many do. There are folk who like Question Time. I loathe it. The cheering and jeering, the virtue-signalling from the audience, the politicians desperately playing to the crowd: it’s all so predictable. What we don’t get in pre-election coverage is the leading players talking reflectively about themselves. We could tell if what they offered was just an act. We are not fools. When much of the political offer from the main parties is indistinguishable, the only real difference is the people. What’s Rachel Reeves all about, I wonder?

I’d pitch it to the BBC, but by the time the idea had worked its way through the labyrinthine bureaucracy of ‘the offers round’ and been worked over in something called ‘development’, the election (and probably the one after) will have been and gone. If there is a broadcaster out there who likes the idea, let’s make it happen and change the face of pre-election coverage for good.

I trust they still have a U list in the government whips’ office. In my day as a whip (in the 1990s when John Major’s government appeared to be going the same way as Rishi Sunak’s now), U stood for ‘unstable’ and the highlight of the week was reviewing the list, trying to decide which of our wobbly colleagues was most likely to defect next. We did our best to keep them onside with a smorgasbord of threats, flattery, bribery and promises of preferment, but it gets more difficult as the election approaches and you are running out of road. In the coming weeks, other MPs may follow Natalie Elphicke and Dan Poulter’s example. The only consolation is that you are united in your contempt for the defectors. As a rule, it’s vanity, arrogance, disappointment or mental instability that makes them go Awol. When they do, you never miss them as people (they are not nice people) and you have the comfort of knowing they are never really welcomed by the other side.

I went to a wonderful memorial service at St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street this week. The music was sensational (it always is there) and the event was unusual because we were remembering not one person but two: a married couple, both writers, Christopher Hudson and Kirsty McLeod. Christopher was an old Spectator hand, many years ago its film critic and literary editor. He was also the easiest, most delightful company. In his eulogy, his friend Sir David Bell told us why. Christopher was non-judgmental. That’s what the world needs now: more non-judgmental people.

An updated edition of Gyles Brandreth’s Breaking the Code: Westminster Diaries is out now.