Starmer takes it step by step in the phoney war that is a general election campaign | John Crace

Call it the phoney war. The government has long since stopped governing. Politics is now conducted entirely through the prism of a general election campaign. The Tories go through a weekly relaunch in a desperate hunt for credibility. Something that might allow them to at least save some face.

Losing has already been factored in to everyone’s calculations. But still we don’t have a date as Rishi Sunak hangs on for a miracle. At this rate, by the time the election is announced we’re all going to be thoroughly knackered.

On Thursday it was Labour’s turn for a dry run. A no-holds-barred launch of its general election campaign that isn’t, because it hasn’t officially started. If you get my drift. A chance to meet the government-in-waiting which looks more like a government than the one that is in office.

It’s an upside down world we live in now. Nothing is quite what it seems. We’re just waiting. Waiting. A state of both imminence and immanence. Creeps in this petty pace from day to day. Till the last syllable of recorded time. The way to dusty death.

The difference in ambition between the Tories and Labour could not be more pronounced. Sunak had given his relaunch 7.0 in a tiny room with just a handful of hacks present.

He might as well have been in a bunker with his two remaining believers present. It felt unhinged. Whoops Apocalypse! If that is the best Rish! has got he should give up now. At the same time, Esther McVey was upstaging him by declaring war on coloured lanyards. Finger on the pulse, Esther. Finger on the pulse.

Labour’s launch at the Backstage Centre in Purfleet was altogether on a bigger scale. Yet somehow far more human. These were people and ideas with whom most could connect. The politics made personal. Though not without its glitches. No one has as yet found a way of assembling the entire shadow cabinet and a few assorted guests on a stage without making everyone look as if they were starring in their own hostage video.

This was to be more of a greatest hits concert – each performer got a five-minute slot – played out under a banner of “My First Steps for Change” alongside a portrait of Keir Starmer looking every inch the 1980s catalogue model. Check out those slacks. Though whatever you do, don’t call it a pledge card. Any resemblance to 1997 was entirely coincidental.

First up was Angela Rayner. “This is Labour’s First Steps,” she began. Just in case we had missed this. First Steps, mind. As opposed to the First Missions which Starmer had launched over a year ago, and which most of us could barely remember now. Though the Missions had not been entirely forgotten. Just, shall we say, somewhat superseded. An occupational hazard in a Never Ending election campaign. Let’s call it a refocus.

Thank you and goodnight, said Angela as she introduced Rachel Reeves to tee up Step One. This amounted to a commitment to not crash the economy. It’s a sign of how far we’ve fallen as a country that a promise not to make everyone worse off provokes an outburst of gratitude from voters. Tears of relief that we won’t all become destitute. Stability is no longer boring: it’s a lifestyle aspiration. But that wasn’t all. We still hoped to become the fastest-growing economy in the G7, but let’s just take things one thing at a time.

Cut to the video screen. A property developer and the Boots CEO declaring their undying love for Rachel. And why not? Even I would look like an economic god compared with Jeremy Hunt. Then it was Wes Streeting’s turn. Normally Wes can work a crowd, but maybe he felt confined by the format. His delivery was strangely detached as he promised to reduce hospital waiting lists.

The impressive list of guests continued with Nathaniel, a teacher with a terminal cancer diagnosis who had also done a turn at last year’s Labour party conference. He was the first to get a proper standing ovation. Then Mike Tapp, the Labour party candidate for Dover. He could talk border security. And perhaps reassure everyone there was life after Natalie Elphicke.

Then came Ed Miliband. He too spoke with passion. Not to mention a sense of deja vu. Images of the Ed Stone must have been flashing through his mind. If only he had tempted hubris. Then 2015 was a lifetime ago. Just stick to energy, Ed. Cheaper and greener. Job done. Yvette Cooper and Bridget Phillipson were equally competent as they talked through their first steps. No great flourishes. Just stick to the scripts. This was no place for primadonnas.

Just as it felt as if the tempo was about to flag, the volume got turned up. A video of Keir in various Action Man poses, an introduction from a former Tory voter, and then the man himself. The jacketless and tieless Keir with rolled-up sleeves. Poised to deliver for the country. It wasn’t subtle. There were no big arguments here. Those have been long since fought and won. He has already persuaded more than enough people that the Tories are not fit to govern.

This was all about getting the message across. It was like listening to the news on the radio. First tell everyone what you are going to tell them. Then tell them what you want to tell them. Finish by telling them again what you’ve already told them. Because what we got were the First Steps spelled out all over again twice. Along with the word “change”. Time for a change. A leader with his shadow cabinet literally behind him. Something of which Sunak can only dream.

Starmer ended with questions from the media. In the past this has been where he has been at his most awkward. Now he seemed entirely relaxed. Happy with his team, confident in his message. Ready to take questions from anyone. Unlike the Tetchmeister. Was he being ambitious enough? Read his lips. These were just the first steps.

What had happened to the more Labour policies like workers’ rights? He was here to park his tanks on the Tories’ lawns. Most of his six first steps were what any government would aspire to. He was here to get elected, not join a protest movement. Wasn’t it all a bit Tony Blair? He should be so lucky. Blair had won three elections on the bounce.

Ninety minutes in – an age for any normal political shindig – and people were getting restless. Starmer wrapped things up. Time to head home. The Tories may be falling apart but Labour now had all its ducks in a row. Bring on the election. Bring on the real war.