Given that Keir Starmer went all in on the personal failings of Boris Johnson, it cannot be unfair that questions now circle about his own personality, and whether it is suited to the office of Prime Minister. “Boring” is the increasingly common charge. “Are you too boring to be Prime Minister?” he was asked at a press conference in Gateshead this week. Cathy Newman picked this line up in an interview with Starmer for Channel 4 news. “Are you proud of being boring?” she asked.
Starmer’s face gets fixed with a faintly creepy spray on grin. His line is that, as he tours the country, no one is saying to him “we need a few more jokes, we need a bit of entertainment”. This feels like a very boring person’s view of what an interesting person is. It is also a Boris reference. Starmer’s calling card is that he is the anti-Boris: safe, steady, reliable, moral. Steve “interesting” Davis with a few more policies — though not that many more, it has to be said.
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So is the “boring” jibe anything more than optics? Starmer clearly thinks it’s a lightweight criticism, almost beneath him to answer. He prides himself on being a grown up, serious. He thinks boring is a frivolous line of attack. But it is not.
The trouble with boring people is not that they don’t keep us entertained, but that they don’t engage us on a recognisably human level. They feel flat, two-dimensional — even when they try to smile. Perhaps especially when they smile. Where is their shame, or hurt, or embarrassment? Where is the joy, the anger, the passion? To call someone boring is to say that, instinctively, we don’t understand what is going on with them; we don’t have any sort of access to their inner world, so they leave us deflated. Somehow, they are absent even when they are there before us. So when Keir Starmer answers the “boring” question with the apparently interesting fact that he once played the violin with Fat Boy Slim, we are even more convinced that he doesn’t get it. This is not what we are looking for.
Take Milton’s Paradise Lost. Why is it that Satan is typically understood as exciting and charismatic while God — the redeemer of the world no less — somehow seems deathly dull? Probably because the bad boy feels more fully engaged with the human condition whereas the divine archetype is distant and unknown. The former is hot, the latter is cold. It is, in metaphysical form, the Keir Starmer problem. Indeed, it’s the same problem that novelists have in trying to write compelling characters that are good people. We often identify so much more with the messily and morally compromised because most of us think of ourselves this way. Saints don’t engage us because they seem to float above the human realm, unaffected by the trials and tribulations of ordinary existence. Starmer doesn’t feel real.
Simone Weil wrote: “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating.” Here, she gives us a clue as to the conundrum: how do we make virtue interesting, compelling? The answer is first to show how real evil is empty and flat — ultimately life-denying. That it creates a wasteland of human flourishing. This is the place where nothing grows. This, Starmer could argue, is Boris Johnson’s Britain. In contrast, virtue really is much more exciting and deeply human – ultimately life-giving. It is the basis for human flourishing. This is how being good connects up with being more fully human.
But Starmer doesn’t give us anything like that. Like the Dementors in Harry Potter, he seems to suck all the hope from the room. He makes virtue feel as life-giving as a traffic warden. Take his reaction to having been exonerated by the Durham police over beergate. “For me, this was always a matter of principle. Honesty and integrity matter. You will always get that from me.” It is such a bad answer. Bad, because it’s way too confident in its own righteousness. “You will always get that from me” lacks humility and, even more importantly, any sense that as human being we get things wrong every single day. There is no openness and honesty in this sentence, no vulnerability to getting things wrong. And — worse still in electoral terms — it says: I am not like you.
Not having any access to Starmer’s hidden inner world, we begin to wonder whether his outer and inner life match up. Whether he’s wearing a mask. And the problem with wearing masks is that we inevitably begin to worry about what is being concealed. Does the reassuringly non-flashy Keir Starmer exist to disguise the persecutory instincts of his “never kissed a Tory” colleagues, the ones who will cancel us for any petty infringements of contemporary metropolitan standards? Is Starmer the safe frontman of the Manichean morality police who divide the country up into those with politically correct and incorrect views, sheep and goats, darkness and light? There never has been a one nation Labour Party, no sense of us all being in this together. Behind Sir Keir lurk the sharks of culture wars ready to feast on our sins.
Of late, the vices of the Conservative Party have been on display for all to see. They are generally the hot sins of lust and greed. I am not trying to defend them, but you know where you stand with these moral failures. Just as you did when John Prescott lamped a protestor after being egged. But Labour’s virtues I find altogether more sinister. I think they are out to get me. To find me out and bring me down, without forgiveness, without compromise. I find Labour’s virtues so much more frightening than Conservative vices.
Boring is not about the absence of gladhands. It is about not being present to others, not seeming to be on the same journey of messy human experience. The cardboard cut out Starmer will get some short-term benefit from being the not-Boris. But it won’t last long. Boris was popular for a long time and for a reason. Starmer still can’t work our why. The mystery will always drive him mad.
Whoever wins the Tory leadership contest is likely to compound this issue. Faced with, say, Kemi Badenoch across the dispatch box, Starmer will look uncomfortably like every jibe that the culture warriors have thrown at the Right over the last few years: male, pale, and stale.