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Keir Starmer handled Joe Biden like a care dwelling resident

Days may not get much better than this for Sir Keir Starmer.

As he sat in the White House Oval Office, alongside Joe Biden, moments after England got through to the final of the Euros, even the media questions were softball.

While US reporters fired a hostile barrage at President Biden about his fitness for election, the Prime Minister was asked whether football is ‘coming home’.

‘I think so,’ he replied mildly, before President Biden added glutinously: ‘It’s all because of the Prime Minister’.

Earlier he had received a warm embrace from Volodymyr Zelensky at a meeting at the NATO summit. Later, he and wife Victoria would attend an ‘informal’ dinner at the White House alongside other Nato leaders.

In between there were ‘brush bys’ – US diplomatic code for brief meetings – with a string of other leaders, all keen to see if a bit of Sir Keir’s election-winning shine rubs off on them. Everyone at these summits loves the new boy.

Emmanuel Macron, who has deep electoral problems of his own at home, greeted him like an old friend, treating him to an elaborate handshake and a Gallic embrace.

On board the PM’s jet – dubbed Keir Force One – there was an air of unreality among ministers and aides alike that they were there at all. Just a week before they had been slogging round the country, staying in B&Bs for the final days of the election campaign, now they were heading for the Nato summit and the world stage.

Aides were nervous about the one-on-one meeting with President Biden, writes Jason Groves

Aides were nervous about the one-on-one meeting with President Biden, writes Jason Groves 

One insider said: ‘It is just surreal. Last week we were at a community centre in Redditch, this week we’re at the White House.’

That sense permeated right to the top. When Sir Keir came to the back of the plane for a ‘huddle’ with travelling journalists he joked: ‘I’ve seen pictures of this – how does it work?’

The new PM, battle-hardened after weeks of campaigning, handled the session reasonably comfortably – neatly swerving a potentially tricky question about Joe Biden’s age, and allowing himself to make little news.

However, he froze, sitting silent for 15 seconds, when asked whether he was committed to stopping the small boats. Eventually the questions moved on but it was a strange moment, which would have caused him problems had it happened at a televised press conference.

Also noteworthy was his note-taking. The PM arrived clutching a sheaf of No 10 notepaper. But instead of jotting down his thoughts as the questions came in, he doodled a series of very deliberate rectangles. Curious.

But he came alive when the subject turned to football, enthusing about his beloved Arsenal and England star Bukayo Saka.

‘I’d remind you, England have not missed a penalty under a Labour government in 2024,’ he joked.

In fact the football was something of a preoccupation yesterday. Sir Keir was alarmed to find that he was due to be in summit meetings when England’s semi-final kicked off, and – worse – his phone would be taken off him. Officials were instructed to keep him updated via diplomatic notes, which is how he learned England had fallen behind. A brief break in the schedule allowed him and the Dutch PM Dick Schoof to find a screen in time to watch Harry Kane slot him the equalising penalty before they were summoned in to the next session.

Aides were nervous about the one-on-one meeting with President Biden. The talks were due to be preceded by five minutes of small talk in front of a group of journalists packed into the Oval Office.

Normally it would be a routine occasion, but with President Biden under intense pressure at home, both men suddenly found their meeting was under heavy scrutiny.

When Sir Keir came to the back of the plane for a ‘huddle’ with travelling journalists he joked: ‘I’ve seen pictures of this – how does it work?’

When Sir Keir came to the back of the plane for a ‘huddle’ with travelling journalists he joked: ‘I’ve seen pictures of this – how does it work?’

Keir Starmer's wife Victoria was resplendent in red on the White House balcony as leaders and their wives posed for pictures

Keir Starmer’s wife Victoria was resplendent in red on the White House balcony as leaders and their wives posed for pictures

The PM appears to have been briefed to treat President Biden as he might an elderly care home relative, speaking loudly, slowly and deliberately and making an effort to involve the older man in the conversation.

President Biden looks waxen and moves more stiffly than he did even a couple of years ago. Earlier he had struggled to bend to embrace Italian PM Giorgia Meloni, who stands a full foot shorter than him.

But on this occasion, the President’s mental faculties appeared to be in reasonable order. In fact he even managed to slip in a political favour to Sir Keir. In an apparent endorsement of the PM’s plan to unpick the UK’s Brexit deal, he told him: ‘I kind of see you guys as the knot tying the transatlantic alliance together, the closer you are with Europe.’

Did it cross Sir Keir’s mind that he should savour this encounter? Things could be very different in six months’ time if Donald Trump returns to the White House.

The PM appeared taken aback when the short on-camera session ended and the Oval Office erupted with shouted questions to the President about George Clooney’s explosive call for him to stand down.

President Biden responded with a small shrug. Sir Keir looked horrified as journalists were hustled, still shouting, out of the President’s inner sanctum.

And then to dinner. When Labour won last week, journalists were warned not to expect to see much of Sir Keir’s wife, who is dubbed ‘Lady Vic’ in Labour circles, and who is said to be a reluctant first lady.

Yet there she was, on his very first trip, pictured holding his hand at the top of the aeroplane steps wearing a light white dress, perfect for the suffocating heat which has descended on Washington this week.

Yesterday she and other spouses were hosted by Jill Biden for a brunch at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Today they will tour the US President’s Camp David retreat.

Last night she was there again, resplendent in red on the White House balcony as leaders and their wives posed for pictures ahead of a dinner to mark Nato’s 75th anniversary.

It was a lavish affair. Guests dined on grilled mountain peaches, Alaskan halibut and honey mascarpone ice cream, washed down with sparkling rose wine. Dinner was served on the state china used by President Truman, who signed Nato into being. Guests were serenaded by the US Marine Chamber Orchestra.

It was, President Biden told them, ‘a big night’ for the White House, marking 75 years of ‘the greatest alliance ever known’.

In his own speech, Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg paid tribute to the leaders’ spouses, telling them: ‘It’s not always easy being married to a politician.’

Sir Keir’s wife knows that much already. But after this kind of treatment, she might just warm to the role.