DAN HODGES: Keir Starmer’s balancing act and why he prays it’s a jailhouse and not the White House that Trump ends up in
I was having dinner in Dan Tana’s, the iconic Santa Monica restaurant regularly frequented by Jack Nicholson, George Clooney and a regular troupe of Hollywood A-listers. Tucking into a plate of veal named after the actor James Woods, the conversation meandered from the form of the LA Dodgers to the ongoing screen writer’s strike. Then one of my friends turned to me and asked, ‘This Keir Starmer. Who is he? What’s he like? He’s going to win, isn’t he?’
I provided a short, potted biography of Labour’s leader, outlined how his political caution meant nobody had the slightest clue what he would actually do if elected, but explained that his strategy of holding tight and letting Rishi Sunak – who at that precise moment was settling into his Ocean Boulevard condo 15 minutes down the road – throw the next election into the bin, meant he was firmly on course for Downing Street.
‘Well, whatever happens, it’s not going to be as bad as what’s going on here,’ my dining companion responded. ‘I think we’re going to get Trump back.’
It would be overstating things to say Starmer-mania is sweeping the States. But during my break it was clear that people in politics and the media are starting to take notice of Sir Keir. And in response, Sir Keir and his team are beginning to put out the first significant diplomatic feelers to Britain’s premier international ally.
I was having dinner in Dan Tana’s. Then one of my friends turned to me and asked, ‘This Keir Starmer. Who is he? What’s he like? He’s going to win, isn’t he?’
It would be overstating things to say Starmer-mania is sweeping the States. But during my break it was clear that people in politics and the media are starting to take notice of Sir Keir
If Starmer were to find himself standing awkwardly alongside Trump at the head of a newly recast Trans-Atlantic alliance, then he would have to navigate the sort of diplomatic schism not seen since the days when Harold Wilson and Lyndon Johnson found themselves at loggerheads over the Vietnam War
In May, Rachel Reeves embarked on a high-profile visit to New York and Washington to meet with business leaders and senior Biden officials. I’m told Team Starmer are currently engaged in delicate negotiations to organise some form of meeting – potentially in the Oval Office – between Sir Keir and President Biden.
And next month Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy arrives in Washington for talks with senior Democrat and Republican senators.
But there is a cloud gathering over their preparations. Or to be more accurate, a cloud that on Thursday was looming menacingly over Fulton County Jail, in Georgia.
‘We’ve thought about what we do if Trump wins, and we’re having to deal with him rather than Biden,’ one Labour source explained, ‘and Keir’s view is that you have to go back to first principles. If you want to be serious then you have to engage with him. You can’t ignore him. But would it be painful and difficult and uncomfortable? Yes.’
Starmer’s opponents certainly intend to exploit that pain. Tory researchers have been busily scouring through the various attacks he and his Shadow Ministers have launched on Trump. And they have found rich pickings.
In 2018, Starmer tweeted, ‘Humanity and dignity. Two words not understood by President Trump. A truly great country treats all people with humanity and dignity.’ Lammy, who as Foreign Secretary would be charged with building bridges with any new Trump administration, helped lead protests against his 2018 visit, telling a crowd of 250,000 in Trafalgar Square: ‘Every single one of the many thousands in the sea of the Trump protest today was on the right side of history.
‘Together with our friends across the United States, we can stand up to this President’s divisive politics of hate.’
As one Tory official chided, ‘These aren’t serious people, they’re just student politicians. They’re not interested in thinking through the hard political reality of what it means to be a serious politician representing Britain on the world stage. Our view is we will work with whoever the American people choose.’
Some Cabinet Ministers have also been hoping to paint Starmer as callow and inexperienced on the world stage, and to exploit that during the election campaign. But the reality is that Labour’s leader is no stranger to Washington.
During his time as head of the CPS he liaised closely with senior US security officials over anti-terror issues, and was heavily involved in discussions over the extradition of Julian Assange over the leaking of highly classified US security documents.
Starmer has also made burnishing his and his party’s defence and foreign policy credentials a priority, seeing it as a way of drawing a line under the Putin-apologising, anti-NATO posturing of the Corbyn years. But if he were to find himself standing awkwardly alongside Trump at the head of a newly recast Trans-Atlantic alliance, then he would have to navigate the sort of diplomatic schism not seen since the days when Harold Wilson and Lyndon Johnson found themselves at loggerheads over the Vietnam War. The most obvious would be the ongoing conduct of the war in Ukraine and its accession to NATO. Starmer has made clear he intends to stand full-square behind the Ukrainians in their struggle. ‘It doesn’t matter who’s in the White House,’ a Shadow Minister insisted. ‘Keir isn’t going to waver. He’s going to stay rock solid.’
Some Cabinet Ministers have also been hoping to paint Starmer as callow and inexperienced on the world stage, and to exploit that during the election campaign
But Trump has taken a markedly different stance. At the time of the invasion, the former President praised Putin as a ‘genius’ and ‘savvy’. And in April, he predicted his aggression would ultimately prove successful. ‘I get along with him great,’ he told Fox News, ‘but ultimately he’s going to take over all of Ukraine.’
Another huge division would be over the issue of the environment. Starmer has pledged he would ‘throw everything’ at ensuring the UK meets its Net Zero commitment. Trump has dubbed the global commitment ‘ridiculous’.
‘In your country, which I do know something about…I see what they’re doing,’ he said in an interview with Nigel Farage, ‘and I think they’re making a tremendous mistake.’
One further major clash would come over Brexit. Given the complexities and competing political agendas there would be almost zero chance of Starmer securing any significant progress in pursuit of the Holy – some would say illusory – Grail of a US trade deal.
Not least because Trump has tied any agreement to the opening up of the NHS to US private healthcare companies, a political non-starter from Sir Keir’s perspective.
As a result Labour are looking to see if there may be ways of by-passing Trump and his administration. Shadow Trade Minister Nick Thomas-Symonds accompanied Rachel Reeves on her recent US visit, and is said to have begun exploring the possibility of securing trade deals with individual US states. ‘It’s something Nick’s been doing a lot of work on,’ one Labour source revealed. ‘He thinks there’s some scope for progress, particularly on the digital side.’
It may not come to that. The polls show Joe Biden with a slender lead over Trump in a hypothetical re-run of their 2020 showdown. And though Biden’s approval ratings are historically poor, Trump remains toxic with moderates and independents.
But there are also signs that Trump’s repeated court appearances are letting him successfully frame himself as a populist martyr. And as in 2016, they are helping garner sufficient publicity and donations to make his nomination as the official GOP candidate seemingly a foregone conclusion.
Which represents the nightmare scenario for Starmer and his team. There is a strong possibility that for the first time in decades, the US and UK election cycles will be running in parallel, with voters in both Britain and the States heading for the polls next autumn.
And during those respective campaigns Labour’s leader will find himself having to tread the tightrope of presenting himself as a serious statesman, while keeping a lid on the visceral hatred of his MPs and activists towards the man Angela Rayner once branded ‘a hard-Right nasty thug’.
Donald Trump seemed to be revelling in Thursday’s appearance at Fulton County Jail. Keir Starmer is praying that come January 2024 that will be his new permanent residence, not the White House.
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