We did like to be beside the seaside

IN what passed for the “old normal” in politics reporting, autumn was the time to pack your PJs, and plenty of Alka-Seltzer, and head for the seaside party conferences. From the lowest party official to the grandest broadcaster, these bashes were a sort of Glastonbury by the sea. You had to be there.

This year, because of Covid-19, no-one is going anywhere except in front of a camera for virtual conferences. As we saw in the US with the Republican and Democrat virtual conventions, it will not be the same.

The politics shows must go on, however, so if the likes of Keir Starmer cannot get to Liverpool as planned to make his first leader’s speech tomorrow, then the Sunday political shows will come to him.

Sky News’ Ridge on Sunday was the first stop on his list. As the MP for Holborn and St Pancras pointed out, not only was he missing the chance to address his first Labour Party conference as leader, but he had yet to make a speech in front of any sizeable crowd. Elected in early April 2020, his was a leadership victory in lockdown.

With the newspapers in England splashing on fines of up to £10,000 for anyone with the virus who refuses to quarantine, presenter Sophy Ridge asked if he would report a neighbour for breaching regulations. She asked the same of Matt Hancock, England’s Health Secretary, as did Andrew Marr later.

To grass or not to grass – it is the query rapidly becoming the equivalent of that old saw, "How much is a pint of milk?"After much umming and ahhing about how persuading people was preferable, Sir Keir said he would tell the police if someone was repeatedly flouting the rules.

READ MORE: UK at 'tipping point' says Minister

Several Ministers, among them Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, have urged people to tell on neighbours breaking the rules, but the Prime Minister said he had never been a fan of “sneak culture” and people should raise the matter in person first. Mr Hancock was in no doubt, though: he would tell, and everybody should.

With more tightening of restrictions due, it fell to Mr Hancock to relaunch the UK Government’s strategy for tackling a second wave of infections.

Mr Starmer was in relaunch mode too, his job to convince Marr and Ridge, and beyond them the electorate, that Labour had changed from the Jeremy Corbyn days. The slogan, “A NEW LEADERSHIP”, was not very subtle, said Ridge, clearly not a fan of shouty caps.

Pushed on a second independence referendum for Scotland should the SNP win a majority next year, the Labour leader tried to foxtrot round his previously stated position, that the matter would have to be “looked at” by Westminster. He was “frustrated” that the SNP and the Conservatives were focussing on referendums and Brexit while a pandemic was going on.

“It’s a very eloquent answer,” said Ridge. “It’s not really an answer to the question I asked though.”

The lawyerly fluency of the former Director of Public Prosecutions has been seized on by Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions, and not in a good way. Another Johnson jibe, Captain Hindsight, was cited by Marr after the Labour leader criticised the failings of the testing regime in England.

READ MORE: Starmer says indyref2 must be looked at

Mr Starmer said he told the UK Government months ago that the demand for tests would rise when schools, universities and offices went back. That was foresight, he said. Somehow, I don’t think Mr Johnson will be revising the nickname from Captain Hindsight to Lieutenant Foresight any time soon.

Besides being on the Sunday shows, the Labour leader was relaunching his party with print interviews. The best headline of the day was in the Sunday Times: “Once you’ve worked with donkeys Labour MPs are a breeze” – a reference to the sanctuary his parents ran. Possibly not the greatest compliment, but the lads and lassies have been called worse.

Otherwise, the interviews yielded little in personal terms, which will have been considered a job well done by his press officers. With the party and neck in the polls with the Conservatives for the first time in the Johnson premiership, the strategy is “steady as she goes”.

Just when Mr Starmer might have thought he was free and clear, Ridge threw a curve ball. The Sky presenter likes to end interviews this way, as when she asked Boris Johnson, a la Theresa May running through fields of wheat, to name the naughtiest thing he had ever done (cycle on the pavement was his answer).

Ridge had discovered that Mr Starmer, like his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, was vegetarian. He gave up meat for the sake of the planet, but he did miss bacon sandwiches and chicken curry terribly.

It was hardly a stop the press revelation, and it was not as if he had been pictured, like Ed Miliband, wrestling with a bacon sarnie and coming off worse.

But when the camera cut back to the Labour leader he was blushing from hairline to collar line. A bashful politician. Well I never.

Heard the one about Rab C?

PARTY conference season was also a good time to publish a juicy memoir. Perhaps it is just as well this year's events are not taking place as normal, otherwise Sasha Swire, author of Diary of an MP's Wife, might be in for a tricky time of it among the sherry and canapes.

The other half of Hugo Swire, former Northern Ireland Minister, made some enemies last week with her portrayal of David Cameron and his set as cigar-chomping, wine-guzzling sorts who bumbled into the EU referendum. Besides having a keen eye, Mrs Swire has a way with nicknames, calling Dominic Raab, true Leaver turned Foreign Secretary, "Raab C Brexit". Don't think the real Rab C would approve.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.