Not a hint of a heckle for the least Labour thing you’ll see at a Labour conference

<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Stick to what you’re good at. It’s in the nature of things – especially during a party conference – that opposition leaders find themselves put under the microscope for character flaws. For reasons why they may never make it to prime minister. Keir Starmer is no exception. No matter that he has been consistently ahead in the polls for months now, or that Liz Truss has spectacularly failed to secure the traditional new prime minister bounce – she seems to be taking her desire to be unpopular extremely seriously – as she tries to crash the economy. Starmer gets it in the neck from left and right. He’s too timid. He’s too vague. He never says anything.

Except that over the last few weeks we’ve now found something at which Keir genuinely excels. In fact, he’s probably one of the best, if not the best, in the business. He’s just an exceptional mourner. Were I to pop my clogs in the not too distant future, I would hope that my family fell to their knees and begged him to organise the 10 days of national psychosis. There would be tears. There would be pomp. There would be circumstance. Chopin’s funeral march on repeat. And more and more tears.

When the Queen died, our lantern-jawed superhero with the sensitive, middle-distance stare suddenly came in to his own. Come the tributes in parliament, he was note-perfect. While Librium Liz couldn’t even connect with herself in a drab, monotone speech that said everything about her and nothing about the Queen, Starmer was emotionally literate enough to convey the nation’s feelings.

He touched us. He held us. Acknowledged our loss. And then, for the rest of the ceremonies over the next nine days, he was strong and silent. Present but unobtrusive. Not trying to game the situation for his own political advantage. If one of the pallbearers had fainted, Keir would have been first to step up.

All of which goes some way to explaining why this year’s Labour party conference began with the singing of the national anthem. Now, anyone in the Commons last Friday for Kwasi Kwarteng’s asset-stripping suicide note would have realised politics was well and truly tribal again. You’d have needed a heart of stone not to enjoy the sight of free marketeers not quite grasping what a free market actually meant as the pound sank without trace. Not so much Britannia Unchained as Britannia Unhinged.

No matter. Starmer wanted to get the conference off to a good start – he’d navigated the traditional leader’s interview on the morning’s Sunday politics shows without taking much collateral damage, though sometimes you wish he’d learn to lie a little better. It wouldn’t hurt him to say he’d freeze energy prices for longer than six months given that he’s never going to be in a position to do so – so he was determined to play to his strengths. Doubling down on mourning it was.

Just before 11am, Starmer took to the conference stage in a packed hall. Above him was a giant video screen with a black and white image of the Queen. Behind him was a new Labour logo of a swirly union jack. There’s sometimes a fine line between patriotism and nationalism. But if some people had their reservations, they kept them to themselves.

This was to be a theme of this year’s party conference. There might be a few angry members on the periphery, but everyone else was determined to put on a display of unity. Labour has now decided it’s in with a genuine chance of winning the next election and will do whatever it takes. These days it’s the Tories who are the real political psychopaths. Imagine trashing the economy just because it’s something you’ve always wanted to do, and finally all the grownups have left the room and there’s no one left to stop you.

Starmer kept it short and sweet, sensing that not everyone might share his enthusiasm for mourning and that they might have come to Liverpool to talk politics. She wasn’t just Our Queen, he said, ripping off Emmanuel Macron’s high-class tribute. She was The Queen. The Queen of the World. The very best Queen we had ever had. The very best Queen there ever could be. We had been blessed. Keir’s eyes half closed in a moment of zen-like calm. He gulped. Perhaps he was laying it on a bit thick.

Cut to the national anthem. Starmer, Angela Rayner, Anneliese Dodds and John Ashworth all dressed in black. Ashworth looking as if he had a magnificent soprano as the broadcast footage focused on him rather than the woman leading the singing. The audience all standing and singing along. They didn’t even need the printed sheets of the words that the ushers had thoughtfully left out. It was about the least Labour thing you’ll ever see at a Labour conference. But everyone was on message. Not even a hint of a heckle. This was an unashamed land grab for the now vacant middle ground. A siren call to the red wall.

Stranger things still were about to happen. In her speech as deputy leader, Rayner twice made reference to “rising to the occasion” of this 1997 moment. Normally any mention of Tony Blair is the kiss of death in the conference hall. Then in the afternoon, at a session on winning the next election, the same video screen that had hosted the Queen now showed images of Blair and Gordon Brown. Weirdly, members of the audience started clapping and cheering. Unheard of. Most disturbing of all, there was even a fleeting sighting of Peter Mandelson on the screen. Birnam Wood has come to Dunsinane.