Who is Keir Starmer? Britain’s new prime minister is complex, unknowable, aggrieved (2024)

Keir Starmer, a human rights lawyer from a small town in southern England, is the new prime minister of the United Kingdom.His victory on July 4 was overwhelming. Yet Britain barely knows who he is.

Starmer has been a politician for only nine years, and since being crowned U.K. Labour leader in 2020 has steered his party from its worst election defeat in almost a century to become the dominant force in British politics.

More than that, his success — just as Western allies flirt with populism — places him instantly as one of the most prominent center-ground leaders in the world. That may be a lonely place, come the year’s end.

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Few thought such a transformation possible. His enemies call it luck: they say he has benefitted from Tory calamity (which he has) and is victor by default. The truth is more curious, and impressive.

At 61, Starmer has a long backstory. His father was a silent, authoritariantoolmaker. (Starmer reminds us of his father’s trade so often that the political class, and sometimes the voters, mock him for it.) His mother was a nurse, with the debilitating health condition Still’s disease. They named him after Keir Hardie, the first Labour Party leader.

He excelled at school. He played the flute and football — one delicate, one savage — and became a lawyer.His siblings called him “Superboy.”

UK election results

RN

NFP

ENS

Other

LR

National Rally Alliance (RN) (33.3%)

National Rally (RN) 29.3%

affiliated with National Rally (RN aff.) 3.95%

New Popular Front (NFP) (28.6%)

Communist Party (PCF) 2.34%

France Unbowed (LFI) 11.7%

Greens (EELV) 5.34%

Socialist Party (PS) 9.25%

Ensemble (ENS) (20.9%)

Democratic Movement (MODEM) 3.96%

Horizons (HOR) 3.58%

Renaissance (REN) 13.4%

Source: The BBC

He was socialist, segueing to soft left, and when the hard left Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn fell in 2019, Starmer stood for the party leadership on an unashamedly leftist platform, making 10 pledges to appeal to his predecessor’s acolytes. Once in power, he junked them all, except the last — to provide effective opposition. Corbynites and antisemites were purged from the party.

Starmer says now that Covid-19, Ukraine, and the state of the public finances forbid him from proceeding with his original platform.The truth is he wanted to win a general election, and there is no socialist path to that in aconstitutional monarchy.

“I’ve been in opposition now for nine long years,” Starmer told me in January. “That isn’t changing lives. We had to get the Labour Party and literally turn it inside out. We lost our way up into 2019 as a party, we lost our way, we lost our bearings.” Did he feel that at the time? “Yeah,” he said, and quickly moved on.

Starmer exiled Corbyn from the party, though if he secretly hated him — Starmer has a half-Jewish wife, and antisemitism flourished in Labour under his predecessor — he has never said so.

Into the Tory heartlands

I met Starmer on a train platform for a short tour of Milton Keynes, a new town to the north of London. Starmer’s focus for this trip is crime, Labour’s strategy being to outflank the Tories on their usual battlefield areas. Wherever possible, Starmer stands in front of Union Jacks.

Who is Keir Starmer? Britain’s new prime minister is complex, unknowable, aggrieved (1)

He wheeled his own suitcase. His voice is quiet and flat; his manner diffident, almost shy. A woman called out, “Good luck with the election,” and looked surprised at herself. It’s an awkward thing, watching Starmer take a compliment: like a date gone wrong.

“I can’t believe it’s been four years” he said of his leadership. I told him I saw his speech to the 2021 Labour Party conference. “The year we passed the rule changes,” he replied, instantly landing on the functional. We head to a Hilton, a generic corporate hotel attached, weirdly, to a football stadium. It’s the home of the Milton Keynes Dons, who used to be Wimbledon FC, based in south London. They alienated the hardcore fans in order to move to better quarters.

That night, as Starmerspoke in a theaterabout knife crime, a woman fainted. We heard glass smashing, and a soft thud as she hit the floor. The audience — Labour-leaning, concerned — paused and waited for Starmer to lead.

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“… I think she fainted,” Starmer said eventually, though I couldn’t see his face. He wasn’t on a stage and he’s 5 foot 8. Then he said: “We have a very experienced police officer…” and moved on.

I wondered what Tony Blair have done with this scene. Jumped off the stage — he would have had a stage — and taken her in his arms? Grinned? Wept? Talked about the time he once fainted during a speech?

“The cat’s still dead”

Tom Baldwin, the journalist who wrote“Keir Starmer: The Biography,” compares Starmer’s style to the way a father might dispose of a family cat. “Keir will come in from the garden and say, ‘the cat’s dead,’ and he doesn’t much want to talk about it. But Tony Blair would go, ‘that was the greatest cat we’ve ever had! Wasn’t it marvellous, and shouldn’t we talk more about thecat?’ They have very different styles but at the end of the day,” — Baldwin pauses — “the cat’s still dead.”

Starmer doesn’t enjoy rallies — he’s too careful, too shy, and the only time he bloomed at a rally was a mistake. At Labour’s 2023 party conference a man threw glitter over Starmer on stage and was carried out by security, shouting. In the photographs, which show Starmer under a rainbow of glitter,trying— it’s Superboy! — he looked interesting at last.

He usually gets the better of protestors: he parents them.(Memes of Starmer as a cross but fair dad are everywhere). When a landlord threw him out of a pub in Bath in 2021, shouting angrily about pandemic restrictions, Starmer calmly handed him back his spectacles — why did he have his spectacles? — and walked away. He was clearly furious.But he handed him the spectacles.

In Milton Keynes I watched Starmer host a “leader’s breakfast” in a room overlooking the football stadium. Starmer asked local candidates and their guests — teachers, businessmen, charity and health workers — for their concerns. “The best positions come from listening,” he told me. “Those with skin in the game know best. I’m a big believer in this.”

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They said crime was spiraling; there was open drug use on the streets; girls didn’t go out in daytime due to harassment. There was a 48 percent rise in foodbank use locally; 3,700 households in the area couldn’t afford to turn on the heating.

There were no resources to manage growing domestic violence; there was a two-year wait for an autism diagnosis; children took detentions rather than admit their parents couldn’t afford football boots for school sports lessons. Starmer, calm with pen and notebook, seemed agitated only once: when he got a name wrong.He does not like to make mistakes.

I think Starmer’s archetype is parental child: therescuer.Starmertold Baldwinhow,when he was 13, his parents were at the hospital and his father rang home. “He didn’t think Mum was going to make it. That evening, I had this idea I should stay up all night to keep watch in case he rang again, but I must have fallen asleep eventually because I woke up to hear the sound of Dad’s car outside our house at 7.30 in the morning.”

A grown-up all his life

Who is Keir Starmer? Britain’s new prime minister is complex, unknowable, aggrieved (2)

At school he thwarted bullies: he prevented them from Sellotaping a child to a gravestone. The parental child has two flaws: a tendency to authoritarianism, and, if their rescue is thwarted, rage.

Starmer’s sister Katy told Baldwin: “He’s had to be grown-up all his life.” But there’s a romanticism too. He lovesMozart, Northern Soul and — as a young man — eyeliner. Photographs of young Starmer are fascinating. He looks hungry, and aggrieved.

“So much of politics has been a spectacle,” Baldwin told me. “Tony Blair with paper castles in the air that didn’t get beyond artist’s impression. [Boris] Johnson set fire to whatever we had. Starmer moves the building blocks around.‘You can have one here and you can put another one here and maybe we should turn it around.’ It’s boring to watch but at the end of it, you get a f*cking house.”

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Baldwin calls it Starmer’s “grim, pragmatic determination.” At the end of the Milton Keynes breakfast — which no one ate — they went onto the balcony to stare at the empty football stadium. Labour politics has a lot in common with football, and this haunts the party, and partially explains the innate conservatism of its election campaign. Both will break your heart.

When the election was called on May 22 Starmer went to Labour HQ to address the staff.I have seen a video. The staff stand up to greet him, and cheer. He stands, hands in pockets, head down. He clutches his right hand in his left, looking as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders.

He Zoomed with the shadow Cabinet and told them it was the moment they had waited for. Then he went home to his family in north London — he is married to an NHS worker, and they have two children, never publicly named — and ate lasagna.

The campaign focused on swing voters in marginal constituencies. Labour strategists were particularly obsessed with Stevenage Woman, an (imaginary) voter in her 40s, with children, and a poorly-paid job. She frets about the cost of living, the National Health Service, and immigration. She thinks Westminster is trivial.

“The funny thing about that,” Josh Simons, a senior Labour strategist — and now MP — told me, “is that in his instinct Keir is exactly like not just voters in general but particularly this disengaged target voter, who’s skeptical of politics and most politicians.”Starmer himself told me: “I genuinely much prefer being on the road campaigning than being in the much more claustrophobic environment of parliament, with sort of two sides yelling at each other in a chamber.” Stevenage Woman,c’est moi.

Welcome to Middleton

As we toured the Milton Keynes branch of the YMCA, Starmer told me that last summer he went on holiday to a village in Sussex called Middleton-on-Sea. (What a name!) “Every time we went out for a walk, people would come up to me — which is good because we’re deep in Tory territory,” he said.

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People talked about mortgages and sewage: “The themes were absolutely consistent.” He said he loves listening to voters, and demonstrated it with an adage: “That’s why you got one mouth and two ears.” It’s curiously old-fashioned. But then Starmer had a father who didn’t allow him to watch television. Starmer negotiated one exception, the BBC football highlights show “Match of the Day.” He became a football fan to avoid schoolyard conversations about TV he hadn’t watched.

Starmer said he was looking forward to being in government and longed to end “the self-indulgent psychodrama of the Tory party.” “They get into power, they get embedded in Westminster, and then they get down to the real business of tearing each other to pieces. Whilst that’s happening the country is left neglected,” he said.

I asked him about the major character in that Tory psychodrama, Boris Johnson, the first Conservative leader Starmer faced. “Most people,” — he corrected himself — “many people, said Johnson would be prime minister for 10 years. I never believed that. I always thought that in the end it would be his character that would bring him down.”

Who is Keir Starmer? Britain’s new prime minister is complex, unknowable, aggrieved (3)

Character is destiny? “Character is destiny,” he repeated, “and with him, profoundly.” He struggled with his Tory opponents, though. At the first debate of the election campaign, when Rishi Sunak shouted that Labour would raise taxes by £2,000, according to the civil service — a claim which was declared palpably untrue by the civil service — Starmer responded by lookinghurt. His eyes widened like a child’s.

But criticism, he says, is, “water off a duck’s back.” He added: “I’ve always been like that — but also, I’m not doing this for me … This is bigger than me. This is about what we must do for our country. And that allows me to plow through and to brush aside anything that is thrown at me.”

Anything? “Whoever wins the next election faces a terrible inheritance,” Professor John Curtice, the leading British pollster, told me.“We’ve maxed out our credit card, we’ve got record levels of taxation, the public services don’t work, there’s very little fiscal headroom available and the economy is flatlining. Good luck, guys, with trying to solve that one.”

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Unknowable, constrained

I watched Starmer tour a police station in Milton Keynes. It’s the largest I have ever seen, and he is there for Stevenage Woman, who doesn’t feel safe in this world. We waited while Starmer had private conversations with police officers and was shown boxes of knives. It was cold and crows were cawing.

A coffee van was playing “The Godfather” theme tune, as good a Starmer song as any, because he learns from his mistakes.

Months later, I watched him launch his election campaign in a small village hall on the south coast of England, an old red curtain in front of the stage. It was deliberately anti-Blairite, unshowy: but pollsters tell him Stevenage Woman is afraid of hope.

There was yet another huge Union Jack in front of the curtain — I have learnt it travels with him in a box — and, in small blocky letters, the word “CHANGE.” He delivered his stump speech: a choice between 14 years of decline under the Conservatives versus national renewal with a changed Labour Party.

Starmer could be a great reforming Labour prime minister. Or he could be, as his thwarted enemies call him, a Tory in red, following Tory spending plans, and merely toying at the edges. Or he could be felled by the ailing economy, quickly: he has no faction in Labour and if he fails, he has no friends.

I think I sense something doughtier, and more imaginative. The child unfixed from the gravestone! The spectacles! No Labour leader has come to power without attracting voters who switch across from the Tories — and so, for now, he is ambiguous; constrained. I wonder if he himself knows yet. Even so, this was a victory for his campaign, if not our politics.

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Who is Keir Starmer? Britain’s new prime minister is complex, unknowable, aggrieved (2024)

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