OPINION - Guto Harri: Meeting Macron is a coup for Keir Starmer, but he should be wary too

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, left, with Vivendi CEO Arnaud de Puyfontaine, right, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy in Paris  (Getty Images)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, left, with Vivendi CEO Arnaud de Puyfontaine, right, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy in Paris (Getty Images)

You don’t easily forget an encounter with Emmanuel Macron. Mine was brief and in private, at the G7 summit in Germany last year. His hand was firm but he held my gaze even more tightly. A Downing Street colleague got a wink that she will cherish for ever — Gallic charm at its most intense.

We’ve seen others get the turbo-charged tactile treatment in public. Macron slid his arm round the back of Donald Trump, went for a full snog with Rishi Sunak and was all over President Zelensky like a rash.

So Sir Keir Starmer is guaranteed a moment today, and even if he squirms at the public display of affection — from a smooth master of that dubious art form — their meeting will be a clear signal that things are going noticeably better for the Labour Party leader.

He will tower over the petite president — he will also look chunky and dishevelled in comparison

He will, without trying, tower over the petite president. He will also look chunky and dishevelled in comparison, but there’s little doubt that this will be a milestone in the growing stature of Sir Keir as a leader-in-waiting.

Opposition is tough when you are desperately trying to get noticed and nobody cares. It gets a little easier when you are courted, listened to, and analysed. And now that foreign leaders, as well as corporate Britain, are eager to get to know him, it is clear that expectations are growing fast that Sir Keir will be prime minister by the end of next year.

That helps with party discipline and team morale. Shadow cabinet members will eat well at their annual conference in Liverpool next month. One told me the best restaurants were booked out all week as big business descend like hawks to build their bridges. So team Starmer should feel gently proud when the pictures emerge from the Élysée Palace. They’ve worked hard to build credibility and momentum over the last few months, and they are now shooting for the next target — to create an aura of statesmanship.

The big prize is a virtuous cycle where shadow ministers start to project power before they have it. Creating a working assumption that something will happen in politics — as so often in other walks of life — has a habit of becoming self-fulfilling.

But beware too. The public are acutely sensitive to any sense that they are being taken for granted. Presumptuous politicians are punished mercilessly. Another Labour leader seeking to end a long stint of Tory rule was so sure that he was on his way to No 10 that he held what looked like a victory rally in Sheffield a week before the poll. The sight of Neil Kinnock repeatedly telling triumphant supporters “we’re all right” — in a weirdly American accent — spooked the electorate, and it was another five years and two leaders later before the party got into power under Tony Blair.

Sir Keir should also be careful of the associations with Macron. He was booed at the opening of the Rugby World Cup this month despite his country being hot favourites to win the contest on home soil.

Mass demonstrations over the state pension age almost brought the country to a standstill in March. The town hall in Bordeaux — where Prince William recently watched some rugby — was set alight during those protests, and gilets jaunes, or “yellow vest” campaigners have been causing havoc since 2018.

Government reaction has been pretty extreme. Fireworks were banned on the last Bastille Day, more than a thousand people were arrested early summer and Macron came close to shutting down social media, and even announcing a state of emergency.

We’ve had a pretty grim summer of industrial action in the UK of course but nothing remotely as terrifying as we have seen across the Channel. Does Sir Keir want to invite that comparison? I wouldn’t, especially if my deputy had just promised to reverse the Conservative legislation that reigned in the trade unions by demanding minimum thresholds for industrial action and a guaranteed basic level of service during strikes.

Then there’s the issue of small boats, which Sir Keir has just decided to put centre-stage. Some say France has been more helpful since we started paying them to intercept the people traffickers, but the average journalist has no difficulty finding migrants who are about to attempt the journey so why do the gendarmerie find it so hard?

So Sir Keir should enjoy today, but not too much. There’s a reason Liz Truss, for all her faults, couldn’t decided if Macron was “friend or foe”. I saw Boris Johnson and him in full bromance mode, but I also heard the former PM call him a c***.

Guto Harri was Downing Street director of communications for Boris Johnson