The royal state visit is pretty standard but the UK opposition leader's trip to France is anything but
For Britain, this is France week.
Not only is King Charles making a three-day state visit to France (from Wednesday, September 20), but Labour leader Keir Starmer meets President Emmanuel Macron Tuesday (September 19).
The King’s visit was rescheduled from last year when pension-reform protests turned violent, preventing Charles and Camilla from heading over to the country with whom Britain’s rivalry is legendary. In France, the British royals will do what they are best at: dining at the Versailles palace and Charles making a speech in the Senate.
But if the royal visit is pretty standard, Mr Starmer’s trip is anything but. It’s part of a big push to build an international profile and appear prime ministerial, ahead of next year’s general election.
Last week, he was in The Hague. After that, Mr Starmer was in Montreal, attending the 2023 Global Progress Action Summit. It was a meeting of centre-left leaders with a rather odd name but a very deliberate agenda. Attendees included Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, Norway’s prime minister, Magdalena Andersson of Sweden, Jacinda Ardern, former prime minister of New Zealand and Sanna Marin, former prime minister of Finland and now at the Tony Blair Institute Britain’s former aspiring PM David Miliband will also be attending. As will Mr Blair. The summit has echoes of the ‘Third Way’ conferences organised by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. The Montreal conclave is the largest such gathering in 15 years.
Much of the British media’s attention is focussed on Mr Starmer’s attempt to play statesman. But the truth is, opposition politicians’ parleys with national leaders are generally remembered only if they win the election and get into office.
Few now remember or care that Ed Miliband, former Labour leader, met France’s then-president François Hollande in 2012. Mr Miliband lost the 2015 election. There was a cringe-inducing exchange further back in time, between Labour leader Neil Kinnock and Ronald Reagan in 1987. Kinnock had been granted a brief half-hour at the Oval Office. But the US president seemed not to know him and instead went straight up to Denis Healey, the shadow foreign secretary, probably because he recognised his unmistakable eyebrows. “Nice to meet you, Mr Ambassador,” he said to Healey.
David Cameron, former Conservative prime minister, met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin before entering Downing Street in 2010.
Mr Starmer’s meeting with Mr Macron may count for something, but much will depend on the result of the next election.