Keir Starmer is the man with a plan, but it doesn’t involve talking about Brexit John Crace

Wwhat a difference a day makes. On Monday Rishi Sunak had pitched up to the Confederation of British Industry’s annual conference in Birmingham to give a keynote speech. At least that’s what the delegates had been led to expect. What they got was a short slapdash ramble in which they were urged to think that innovation was the answer to all their problems. Delivered and received in a sense of repressed boredom.

If the prime minister had wanted to sound as if he didn’t really give a toss – that the Conservatives were completely out of ideas on how best to run the economy – he wouldn’t have changed a beat. The CBI heard him out, but the applause was perfunctory at best. Just enough to maintain a patina of politeness. But nothing more. Ten minutes of everyone’s lives that they would never get back.

It was all very different on Tuesday morning when Keir Starmer arrived to give his speech. The Labor leader had gone to the trouble of giving the delegates something of substance. No mini-romp through a few management consultancy cliches topped off with a fake Goldman Sachs smile for him. This was twice as long and far more granular. Given with undeniable confidence and panache. Gone are the days when he used to be almost apologetic in front of business leaders. Now he looks them in the eye.

And the delegates seemed to lap it up. They even laughed at his jokes. Which was weird as Starmer rarely lands any of his gags when he’s speaking in public. And he got what for the CBI was near enough a mini-ovation. They genuinely loved him. Not just because Starmer had bothered to show them some respect, but because they felt he had a vaguely credible plan.

He was acting as if he believed he was a prime minister-in-waiting. Where Sunak had come across as a semi-serious leader in charge of a joke of a party, Starmer sounded like the real deal. A serious man leading a serious party. It’s been a while since Labor could say that. Just as long as no one talks too much about Brexit.

Starmer opened with a gag. It was great to be at the National Exhibition Center where some of the greats had been headline acts. Bob Dylan. David Bowie … and Peppa Pig. The CBI enjoyed that. No one is in the mood to forget Boris Johnson’s crash and burn at last year’s conference any time soon. Then it was on to the nitty-gritty. He had a plan for Britain. This was different Labour party. One that wasn’t just pro-business but proud to be pro-business. Ready to work in partnership with business. Happy to embrace profit.

“I don’t want to waste time talking about the government,” he said. Although of course he did. Sure, no one could have predicted the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. But the Tories could have done something about onshore wind and solar panels to make us less reliant on imported energy. And it was down to the Tories’ decline and neglect that we were currently at the bottom of most OECD tables. The lowest growth of any G7 country. So Sunakered that even the government’s industrial strategy for growth had been decommissioned and archived.

So here was the deal. It was going to be tough. Tougher than he would have liked, but he wasn’t in a position to influence the economy he was going to inherit. But there would be growth throughout the country. Not just the south-east. And it would be based on a green revolution. Anyone who wanted a well-paid job could have one. He was less clear about how that might actually happen, but bear with him. This was the future.

There was a deal-breaker though. Take immigration. That would have to come down. Or maybe stay the same. He didn’t want to get too hung up on numbers. But you got the drift. The days of immigration to fill vacancies with cheap labor were over. Although obviously there might have to be some immigration to fill jobs in the short term; it was the medium and the long term he was worried about. Where the short term ended and the medium and long term began, he could not say. That was another detail we would have to take as an article of faith.

Just believe in the alchemy that every employer would take on dozens of apprentices and then pay them top dollar when they had qualified. Quite how that worked for care homes who were already struggling to recruit skilled staff whom they couldn’t afford to pay more than the national living wage again wasn’t at all clear.

But just roll with it for now. It was an immigration policy that had played out well with focus groups. Getting Labor elected was more important than being consistent. So Starmer had once said that he was all for free movement and immigration. That was then, this was now. Besides, Rish! had dropped most of his leadership pledges, so why shouldn’t Keir? After all, the Tories could hardly moan about Labour’s immigration policy if it wasn’t so very different from their own.

Understandably, the media – if not the CBI delegates, who seemed to take Starmer’s word as gospel – wanted more detail on Labour’s change of direction on immigration. But Starmer remained sphinx-like. It would all work out. Just believe. It was much the same with Brexit. That too could not be mentioned in any detail. Like the Tories, Labor can’t bring itself to say that there are no Brexit benefits that anyone has yet identified. That Brexit is costing the country 4% of GDP.

So there is an omerta. The two biggest parties unable even to speak about one of the main reasons the economy is falling into recession. In case the country feels betrayed. Both just hoping that one day – in some unspecified year in the future – people suddenly realize Brexit has been a terrible mistake. And then the Tories and Labor can say I told you so. Except they didn’t. So take your pick. A competent Starmer with one arm tied behind his back. Or a hapless Sunak with both arms tied. The CBI looks to have made their choice.

Leave a Comment