The intriguing real-life story of Keir Starmer, U.K.’s next prime minister


LONDON — He was a lefty lawyer who defended vegan anarchists before prosecuting terrorists on behalf of the British crown. He was an editor of a Trotsky magazine in his youth, yet he delighted capitalists by putting “wealth creation” at the heart of the Labour Party platform this year. He was an anti-monarchist who was then knighted as “Sir Keir” and now will meet with the king once a week.

It all makes for a complex, messy, real-life story. It also makes it tricky to anticipate what sort of prime minister Keir Starmer will be.

One of his biographers confessed that Starmer is “hard to pin down” — and he had total access to his subject.

Starmer, 61, has used that ambiguity to his advantage. People have been able to project onto him what they want to believe. For a long time, he even benefited from the rumor that he was the inspiration for the Mark Darcy/Colin Firth urbane-human-rights-lawyer character in the “Bridget Jones” books and movies. (He was not.)

Being many things to many people may have helped Starmer deliver a big win on Thursday. His center-left, social democratic Labour Party is poised to return to power after 14 years in the wilderness, while voters have banished the Conservatives to the opposition. (The results for the London constituency that Starmer represents in Parliament aren’t expected until early morning, though his is considered a safe seat.)

But what is Starmer’s mandate, really, other than his self-evident campaign slogan of “Change”? In Ipsos polling last month, half of respondents said they didn’t know what he stood for.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer is favored to win Britain’s July 4 election and become the country’s new prime minister. Here’s everything to know about him. (Video: Naomi Schanen/The Washington Post)

Starmer didn’t give foreign press interviews during this election. That’s typical for party leaders. But close colleagues also call him a “very private man.” He has a wife, Victoria, and two teenage children, whose names he has never made public, and a cat, whose name he was willing to reveal as Jojo. He has expressed worry about the impact a move to Downing Street will have on his family.

He’s not a flash politician. As an orator, he’s no Winston Churchill. But his friends say he can be ruthless, which might be what a stumbling-along Britain needs.

“He is very, very driven, quite relentless,” said Tom Baldwin, a journalist and former Labour spin-doctor, who recently published a well-received biography of Starmer. “He has an oversized view of his capacity to bring change. He is not going to inspire people with big speeches. What he might do is fix things.”

Starmer’s working-class roots

Starmer will be the most working-class leader of Britain in a generation — coming in after a prime minister who by some counts was richer than the royals.

On the campaign trail, Starmer introduced himself by saying, “My mum was a nurse, my dad was a toolmaker.” He talked about growing up with unpaid bills and the phone being cut off. Pasta “was a foreign food” in his home, his biographer Baldwin wrote. The family did not travel abroad.

Starmer scored well on tests and gained entry into an elite high school. He was the first of his line to attend a university — Leeds, and then a year at Oxford.

He has said he wants to help young families get their first mortgage, knowing that his parents’ modest semidetached stucco home “was everything to my family — it gave us stability, and I believe every family deserves the same.”

He cites his mother’s work as a nurse, and the care she received for a debilitating inflammatory syndrome, for instilling his reverence for Britain’s National Health Service. His wife works for the NHS, too, in occupational health, which Starmer says has given him “insight” into the struggles of the underfunded, backlogged system.

Starmer says that his father felt “very disrespected” for working at a factory, that he was emotionally distant. As a dad himself, Starmer says he tries to “carve out really protected time for the kids.” He tries to stop work on Fridays at 6 p.m. Although an atheist himself, he has said they often do Shabbat dinner in keeping with his wife’s Jewish heritage.

Colleagues who knew Starmer before his entry into politics say clues to how he will govern can be found in his extended life chapter as an attorney.

They say he was never a “jury’s lawyer” — the cinematic advocate who makes an impassioned closing argument — but a “judge’s lawyer,” who built the case with precedent, law, facts. Indeed, when he represented the opposition during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, the Starmer style was often described as “forensic.” His cross-examination managed to deflate even the bombast of Boris Johnson.

Early in his career, Starmer joined Doughty Street Chambers, known for taking on big, controversial human rights cases. He fought the death penalty in Commonwealth countries — defending, as the tabloids put it, “baby killers and axe murderers.” He was part of a legal team that got Uganda’s Constitutional Court to invalidate the sentences of all 417 people on death row.

Starmer also worked pro bono for a pair of vegan anarchists who passed out leaflets accusing McDonald’s of low wages, cruelty to animals and support of deforestation. The burger maker sued for libel, and the case and its many appeals lasted a decade, one of the longest legal fights in British history. It ended in a kind of draw.

London media lawyer Mark Stephens, who worked on cases with Starmer, said he was “always looking 10 miles down the road,” at how a seemingly unwinnable case could be won on appeal to the Supreme Court or the European Court of Human Rights.

Starmer surprised — and upset — some of his legal colleagues when he became the country’s top prosecutor.

He oversaw the first British prosecution of al-Qaeda terrorists. He brought forward charges against Tory and Labour politicians caught up in an explosive expenses scandal, first revealed by the press. He and his prosecutors were accused of heavy-handed bias when they came down hard in arrests and charges for people who rioted in London after a black man named Mark Duggan was shot dead by police in 2011.

His knighthood came in 2014, in recognition of his work for the Crown Prosecution Service.

In Baldwin’s biography, a former partner of Starmer’s, Phillippa Kaufmann, says that “law was never going to be enough for him.”

Starmer didn’t get into electoral politics until he was 52. That was just nine years ago, in a country where many members of Parliament began plotting their rise to power in university days.

He was elected to represent the London district of Holborn and St. Pancras in 2015 and served as a “shadow minister” in the opposition, given the thankless job of negotiating Labour’s shaky position on Brexit. Starmer was against leaving the European Union, but many blue-collar Labour voters were for it. The party’s inscrutable compromise was that it was neither for Brexit nor against it, but wanted a second referendum. This mush — and Starmer, too — probably contributed to Labour’s colossal loss to the Conservatives in 2019.

But after that election, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was out, and Starmer was in. He set out to remake the Labour Party.

Critics who were bested by Starmer in intraparty brawls call him an opportunist. His allies credit him with purging members who had contributed to the public sense that Labour had “an antisemitism problem.” Starmer also tracked to the center to make the party electable once again.

“What Keir has done is taken all the left out of the Labour Party,” billionaire businessman John Caudwell, previously a big Tory donor, told the BBC. “He’s come out with a brilliant set of values and principles and ways of growing Britain in complete alignment with my views as a commercial capitalist.”

The Labour Party highlighted his endorsement.

Starmer as prime minister

Starmer’s supporters dare hope that he will be a transformative leader — a kind of 2024 version of Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, without the baggage of the Iraq War — if he is not undone by the deep divisions in his own party.

“I think he’s proved he’s quite ruthless in terms of changing his party,” said Tony Travers, a politics expert at the London School of Economics. But will that ruthlessness carry forward into government? “We’ll have to wait and see,” Travers said.

What does Starmer believe in? “He believes in pragmatism, in developing policy by solving problems, not through grand theory. And he doesn’t come to the table with ideological presuppositions,” said Josh Simons, who ran the centrist think tank Labour Together.

Starmer has his critics in the party — for the very same reason.

“I think he actually stands for very little,” said James Schneider, former director of strategic communications for Labour and a Corbyn ally.

“He seems to reflect the ideas of the people that are around him,” Schneider said. “He has shifted or been shifted more and more into the establishment position,” and his government will be an attempt to restore the establishment’s authority, not challenge it.

“He seems like a middle manager scolding his workers, or an unpopular stepdad who’s lost control of the kids,” Schneider said.

Critics on the left suspect Starmer will not be bold, but will hew to a soft middle.

Much of his focus will be on domestic politics — trying to shore up the British economy and address people’s sense that everyday costs have become unmanageable. He wants to cut soaring electricity costs — with a new state-run green utility company. He wants to cut wait times for medical and dental appointments.

Britain’s foreign policy hardly ever changes under a new government, and Travers said foreign policy would remain “amazingly unaltered” by a shift from Conservative to Labour rule. Starmer has said Britain will remain a strong member of NATO; will back Ukraine in its war against Russia; and will support Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas, while calling for a cease-fire.

Although Brexit is seen as a flop, and there is no enthusiasm for another referendum, Britain under Starmer will probably seek a closer relationship with the European Union.

Critics have described Starmer as dull. He is not. What will be most interesting — to Britain and the world — is what he does now that he and his party have power.





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