CRAIG BROWN: Like a goldfish, Keir Starmer must dare to be dull. He may never set the world on fire, but, then again, who wants a world on fire?
Members of the Labour Shadow Cabinet have ganged up on Sir Keir Starmer, complaining that he is ‘boring voters to death’. They pointed out that ‘boring’ was the most common word employed by members of the public to describe the Labour leader.
A debate about boredom ensued. ‘What’s boring is being in Opposition,’ argued Sir Keir at Tuesday’s Shadow Cabinet meeting, adding that the people who were really boring were those who sought to undermine his path to No 10. According to the Guardian, one witness described the lengthy exchange as ‘ironically very boring’.
Might Sir Keir be better off taking a different tack? He may never set the world on fire, but, then again, who wants a world on fire? In explosive times, we don’t turn to a political firecracker to help set them right.
By far the most interesting man in Ramsay MacDonald’s 1930 Cabinet was Oswald Mosley. He buzzed with energy, magnetism and bold opinions. When he resigned after the Cabinet’s rejection of his exciting plans for the future, MacDonald looked for the dullest backbencher to replace him as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
Members of the Labour Shadow Cabinet have ganged up on Sir Keir Starmer, complaining that he is ‘boring voters to death’. They pointed out that ‘boring’ was the most common word employed by members of the public to describe the Labour leader (pictured in the Commons)
That dullard was Clement Attlee, who lacked charisma and was a dreary public speaker. ‘A modest little man, with plenty to be modest about,’ was the way Winston Churchill described him.
Nevertheless, Attlee rose to the top and, in his six years as prime minister from 1945, he set up the NHS and welfare state and put Britain on its path to post-war recovery. He is now seen as one of our greatest premiers.
Dullness is not to be sniffed at. The Queen is not admired for her witty repartee or her snappy opinions or her cutting-edge fashion sense. She feels no need to be interesting. Her speeches are dull and dependable. Across 70 years of public speaking, she has only ever come up with two memorable phrases: ‘My husband and I’ and ‘annus horribilis’.
Other members of her family may aspire to the razzle-dazzle of showbusiness, but she has chosen the opposite route. Dullness has been the cornerstone of her reign and the reason she is so popular.
We may kid ourselves that we want fireworks, clowns and cartwheels, but what we really crave is the reliable and the predictable: digestive biscuits, jigsaws, cow parsley, chewing gum, The Shipping Forecast, Scrabble, ham, cheddar cheese, porridge, daffodils, cabbage, cricket, orange squash, cod, mashed potato, mown lawns, The Archers and Gardeners’ Question Time. When we bump into strangers, we don’t expect to exchange flashy opinions about world affairs: no, we want to talk about the weather.
Jack Straw was one of the great survivors in modern politics, serving in the Cabinet for 13 years including as Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary. In his autobiography, Last Man Standing, he acknowledges that he owed his longevity to his talent for boring the pants off everyone.
Caught in a tight corner, he would go on and on, taking care to say nothing remotely exciting. ‘It was time for some unbearably boring quotes. Thank God for the compound sentence; the subordinate clause. I was Mogadon, free, without prescription.’
Before he entered politics, Boris Johnson was a newspaper columnist, paid to stir things up with his amusing and lively opinions about this, that and the other. This was his natural talent, and he was exceptionally good at his job. Pictured in the Commons on Wednesday
Once, when chairing discussions about Turkey’s proposed entry into the EU, he kept delegates talking until two in the morning. ‘I judged that if I could get most delegates to a state of catatonic exhaustion, then a consensus might follow.’
Before he entered politics, Boris Johnson was a newspaper columnist, paid to stir things up with his amusing and lively opinions about this, that and the other. This was his natural talent, and he was exceptionally good at his job.
But the qualities necessary to be the Prime Minister are much more measured, or, if you will, boring: calm, sense, patience, precision, dignity, discretion. You no more want an amusing prime minister than you want a fun airline pilot or a knockabout brain surgeon.
This is why I think Sir Keir Starmer should ignore his critics and dare to be dull. He will find many highly successful bores to help guide him along his unexciting way — from music, U2, Coldplay, Ed Sheeran and the late Charlie Watts; from television, Inspector Morse, Phillip Schofield, and Trevor McDonald; from the animal kingdom, the labrador, the goldfish, the tortoise.
All he has to do is bide his time, and wait for the electorate to grow weary of its glittery platform boots, and opt for a decent pair of sensible shoes.
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