It is the classic classroom clash. The blustering, roaring yet brilliant thug shouting down the neat, scholarly, quietly-determined swot. The classroom roars with laughter, the master watches thoughtfully, the noisy bully shouts another clever line of abuse. The swot pushes his glasses back up his nose, blinks and gulps, and ploughs on with his exposition. Sir Keir Starmer, for it is he, certainly wins many points for dogged determination. But alas, not so many for charisma or popularity.
Starmer is surprisingly little known, considering he is the leader of one of the UK’s two leading political parties. Unlike recent Labour leaders – Blair, Brown and Miliband - he makes little of his background or of his undoubted success in life (his predecessor in the Labour hot seat, Jeremy Corbyn, also made little of his history, but suffered the Press making much of it on his behalf). Yet Starmer has every reason to be proud of his achievements. He was born in humble circumstances in south London, passed the eleven plus and attended a grammar school in Surrey, was gifted in music (playing several instruments), and graduated in law with a First Class degree from Leeds University. From there he became a barrister with a glittering career, which included much activity in human rights advocacy, often performed pro bono. He became a QC at the age of 39 and topped all this off by being appointed Director of Public Prosecutions in 2008. He is generally regarded as one of the most successful holders of that office in recent years (and hence the knighthood awarded him in 2014).
If Sir Keir was a Tory grandee, he would be loudly feted as a great Conservative success story. If his politics had ever inclined to the right he would have had every likelihood of achieving cabinet office. But there was never any possibility of that.
His parents were lifelong Labour activists, indeed naming their son after the first leader of the Labour Party, Keir Hardy. Young Keir was campaigning for the Labour Party from a very early age, and Labour Party politics remained from childhood the mainstream of his life, albeit slightly paused whilst he was Director of Public Prosecutions (it is and has to be seen to be a non-political office, albeit holders are perfectly entitled to hold political opinions).
In late 2013 Starmer resigned as DPP and in the following year was chosen as Labour candidate for an inner London constituency, a safe seat, a bonus not often given to first-time candidates. He was appointed by Jeremy Corbyn as shadow minister for immigration but resigned within a year in protest at Corbyn’s left-wing leadership of the party, saying that the party would never win office with such policies. Rather surprisingly, within a few months he was back in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet as minister for Brexit (Starmer was a fervent Remainer). What had changed? Probably that Corbyn had been overwhelmingly re-elected as leader of the Labour Party shortly before; so maybe Keir realised that a long period on the back benches might be rather dull.
In December 2019 Boris Johnson thrashed Labour at the general election, rather proving Sir Keir’s original leadership theory right, and in early 2020 Corbyn resigned; Starmer stood in the subsequent leadership contest and won on the first ballot. That concludes a remarkable rise to the top; one even more rapid than that of another (but not so legally gifted) lawyer, Tony Blair.
But all this zealous and admirable activity conceals one thing. What exactly are Starmer’s politics and beliefs? Therein lies a mystery. Starmer says that his place is on and with the soft Left, but that does not really get us far in understanding what drives the man, or what a Starmer government might do if it were to achieve office. Indeed, there are Vicar of Bray tendencies (a C17th century clergyman who by frequent examinations of conscience managed to retain his appointment throughout various political and religious upheavals); Keir does have an ability to, shall we say, amend and move on. He changed his position on the fundamentals of immigration during his first front bench stint, his demands for a confirmatory referendum on Brexit were quietly filed away during his second, and more recently the Prime Minister has had sitting opposite a true friend on most matters concerned with the UK’s lock-down. It is hard to imagine Jeremy Corbyn sitting quietly through all the reversals and chaos of the government’s handling of the pandemic. Indeed the Labour party (still strongly influenced by Corbynistas and Momentum) are also finding this increasingly hard to imagine, and Starmer seems to be becoming unpopular within his own party. He is also losing popularity in the country with his personal rating falling to 13% negative compared with 21% positive nine months ago.
Which seems a bit unfair. It is the tradition in the UK, as in most democracies, that at times of national emergency, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition should support the government in its endeavours. Indeed, it might be thought very unsporting and also unpopular with the electorate to do anything else. Most notably, in May 1940, at a time of great crisis and failure of leadership, Winston Churchill and his supporters were criticised in abusive terms by all three parties in the House of Commons for their temerity and disloyalty in wartime in opposing a vote of confidence in the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. (Indeed, it is often forgotten that Chamberlain won that vote by a large majority and it was Chamberlain himself who realised that he could not go on.) So Starmer is doing the right and honourable thing, as would seem to be in his character, but is getting, at least now, no political benefit from it.
But there is more to Starmer than honour and correctness. Careers such as his are not just founded on behaving like an old-fashioned English gentleman. He is undoubtedly bright, has a great clarity of mind and forensic abilities of the highest order, is said to be unfailingly polite and considerate, and is very hard-working. His exterior gives clues: chiselled, perfectly groomed, self-disciplined, smartly dressed. Starmer without a tie looks wrong – it is his natural finishing touch (Johnson with a tie looks wrong, something he has been forced to wear and half pulled off). But Starmer is also ruthless. He seized an early opportunity to ditch his leadership rival Rebecca Long-Bailey from his shadow cabinet, and he fired three more frontbenchers (all women) last autumn when they rebelled against party policy on a minor matter. Others have been suspended or warned. This is a hard-line leader, make no mistake, much more so than Corbyn. Again, a comparison with Blair comes to mind; a strong disciplined leader whose politics are relatively flexible; a leader who wants to win office, not to maintain ideological purity.
It often used to be said that Labour party members were either Marxists or Methodists, either disciples of Marxist dogma looking towards the perfect collectivist socialist dream, or with Christian foundations of kindness, gentleness, and fairness. Although Starmer claims to be a true socialist together with that mysterious soft-left tendency (how he must regret accepting that knighthood), really he displays Methodist-like roots, like Blair and Brown, Callaghan and even Kinnock, not like Foot and Corbyn. And he wants power; he is willing to compromise many fringe matters of policy to maximise votes, he would lead a moderate administration. And yet… And yet, we must temper this analysis by a quick glance across the Atlantic. We would six months ago, even three months ago, have continued here to compare him with Joe Biden. Indeed Sir Keir has drawn that comparison himself, recently. But now look at Biden. A moderate Democrat with minor radical flourishes, we would have said. But, and it is not clear quite what is going on, we seem to have a hard left President whose company Jeremy Corbyn would enjoy. Is that also the real Starmer? If somehow, unexpectedly, four years hence, he is acknowledging the cheers before entering 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister, will the pinstripes be ripped off to reveal an all-red bodysuit below, a socialist in tooth and nail, and no softness about his leftism?
We don’t know. We don’t know if he will last long enough to reveal his true identity one way or another. He has a real test coming up in May which could blow everything apart. The unexpected Hartlepool by-election has come at a bad time for Labour: the Conservatives leading strongly in the national polls, things seemingly going right for Boris, Labour perhaps selecting entirely the wrong candidate - a mini-Starmer, middle class professional, clever, a Remainer, a loser of his seat at the last election, not a local. Everything that seemed to help Labour do so badly in the north at the last election. With a bit of luck and a good local candidate the Tories could walk this contest. What will Keir do then? And how much time will his fractured party give him to do it?