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Sir Keir Starmer: from ‘lefty lawyer’ to the UK’s new prime minister

After six weeks under the campaign spotlight – and four years after taking the helm of the Labour Party – to many voters new Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer remains something of an unknown quantity (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
After six weeks under the campaign spotlight – and four years after taking the helm of the Labour Party – to many voters new Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer remains something of an unknown quantity (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The cover of Labour’s election manifesto features a black and white photograph of leader Sir Keir Starmer – sleeves rolled up, the serious look beneath his trademark grey quiff exuding a steely determination – alongside the single word “Change”.

But after six weeks under the campaign spotlight – and four years after taking the helm of the party – to many voters, their new Prime Minister remains something of an unknown quantity.

After the scandals of the Boris Johnson years and the financial meltdown of Liz Truss’s infamous mini-budget, they may be clear they have had enough of the Conservatives, but enthusiasm for the new man can seem muted, with many uncertain about what exactly is the “change” he represents.

One of the charges most frequently thrown at him by opponents during the campaign was that he is a political trimmer who has all too frequently changed his mind on key issues – from public ownership to what is a woman.

When Jeremy Corbyn was arguably the most left-wing leader in the party’s history, he served alongside him in the shadow cabinet, campaigning for him to become prime minister in two general elections.

Yet he has since been only too happy to welcome Tory defectors such as former Dover MP Natalie Elphicke – hardly renowned for her centrist tendencies – into the Labour ranks, proclaiming it as evidence of the way the party has indeed moved on.

Sir Keir Starmer speaking into a microphone backed by workers in orange hi vis jacketss
Sir Keir Starmer on the General Election campaign trail (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

When he ran for the leadership himself in the wake of Labour’s crushing 2019 election defeats, he stood on a left-leaning platform with commitments to re-nationalise water and energy and scrap university tuition fees.

He has since been accused of systematically abandoning his principles, dropping key policies one by one, as he has tacked steadily towards the centre ground.

To his supporters, it demonstrated his pragmatism and a focus on taking Labour back to power, believing real change cannot be achieved from the impotence of opposition.

Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions
Keir Starmer was director of public prosecutions from 2008 to 2013 (Lewis Whyld/PA)

Sir Keir himself has said he never thought the party would win under Mr Corbyn, an argument which did always go down well with audiences on the campaign trail.

Often saddled with the tags “grey” and “boring”, his team worked hard in the run-up to the election to humanise him, filling in a backstory which contrasted with his image as a “lefty lawyer” from north London, remote from the concerns of ordinary voters.

A recent biography by journalist and former Labour spin doctor Tom Baldwin described him growing up sharing a cramped, ramshackle “pebble-dashed semi” with three siblings and a mother who was seriously ill for much of his childhood.

The outlines of that story – “my dad was a toolmaker, my mum was a nurse in the NHS” – may now have become almost wearily familiar to anyone who has heard or read any of the countless interviews he has done since the campaign began.

And yet still there is a sense that he remains somewhat remote and unknowable – a bit too “lawyerly” and buttoned-up to connect with voters at an emotional level.

Inclined to reticence in public, his friends insist that in private he is warm and and engaging, whether propping up the bar at his local, going to watch his beloved Arsenal, or cooking a meal at home for his family.

Sir Keir Starmer with Jeremy Corbyn during the 2019 general election campaign
Sir Keir Starmer with Jeremy Corbyn during the 2019 General Election campaign (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Named after the first Labour leader, Keir Hardie, he endured a difficult childhood growing up in straitened circumstances in the Surrey commuter-belt town of Oxted.

His mother, Jo, had a rare condition which left her with a painfully debilitating form of rheumatoid arthritis requiring frequent hospital treatment, while his younger brother, Nick, had learning difficulties.

His father, Rodney, meanwhile, was a distant, uncommunicative figure who banned the children from listening to pop music or watching TV shows like Tiswas or Starsky And Hutch and who hated Margaret Thatcher.

However, the difficulties at home did not stop him doing well at school – passing the 11-plus to gain a place at Reigate Grammar School, while his prowess at sport and music earned him the nickname “Superboy” from his siblings.

Determined to break away from his small town background, he won a place at Leeds to study law – a course chosen largely to please his parents – making him the first member of his family to go university.

He was at times uncomfortable in his new surroundings – while fellow students talked knowledgeably about which branch of the profession they hoped to follow, he realised he had never even met a lawyer and had little idea of what they did.

He responded by simply working harder than anyone else, his efforts being rewarded with a first class honours degree and a place at Oxford on a postgraduate course in civil law.

He was also becoming increasingly involved in politics, helping to run Socialist Alternatives, an obscure Trotskyite magazine, and writing articles earnestly proclaiming Karl Marx was “of course” right.

Sir Keir Stamer, seated in a white open-necked shirt, alongside Rache Reeves and Angela Rayner
Sir Keir Starmer with Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner (right), and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves (left) (Victoria Jones/PA)

After being called to the bar in 1987, three years later he was among an idealistic group of progressive lawyers who formed the Doughty Street Chambers, specialising in human rights, with half their cases either paid for by legal aid or free of charge.

He made repeated trips to Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean and Africa to represent defendants facing the death penalty, work which helped win him a QC of the Year award, and argued against the Blair government’s 2005 invasion of Iraq.

At the same time, he belied the conventional “lefty lawyer” image by serving as an adviser to the Association of Chief Police Officers and newly-formed Northern Ireland Policing Board, and in 2008 he was appointed director of public prosecutions.

Among the notable decisions he was involved in were the charging of cabinet minister Chris Huhne for seeking to evade speeding points and the fast-track prosecutions of offenders following the 2011 riots in London and other English cities.

It was only after his term of office – for which he was awarded a knighthood – came to an end in 2013 that he turned seriously to politics, gaining election to the safe Labour seat of Holborn and St Pancras two years later.

Sir Keir Starmer emerges from his home following the Hartlepool by election. He considered quitting following Labour's defeat
Sir Keir Starmer emerges from his London home following the Hartlepool by-election in May 2021 (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

He was made a shadow Home Office minister by Mr Corbyn, but was among a wave of frontbenchers to resign in the wake of the tumultuous aftermath of the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU.

After Mr Corbyn saw off the ensuing leadership challenge, Sir Keir – an ardent Remainer – agreed to return to the fold as shadow Brexit secretary.

Pressed subsequently by Tories on why he had done so when he had discarded so much of Mr Corbyn’s left-wing agenda, he argued he had a duty to help mitigate the effects of withdrawal, fighting to keep open the option of a second referendum.

Following Mr Corbyn’s resignation after leading Labour to its worst result in more than 80 years in the snap general election of 2019 – fought on Mr Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done” – Sir Keir quickly emerged as the overwhelming favourite to replace him.

One of his first commitments on being elected leader was to rid the party of the “stain” of antisemitism which had taken hold under his predecessor.

He soon revealed a ruthless streak when Mr Corbyn complained that a damning report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission had overstated the problem by sacking him from the Parliamentary Labour Party – an ultimate act of distancing.

Sir Keir Starmer with his wife, Victoria, following his 2021 Labour Party conference speech in Brighton
Sir Keir Starmer with his wife, Victoria, following his 2021 Labour Party conference speech in Brighton (Andrew Matthews/PA)

His start as Labour leader was overshadowed by the Covid pandemic, and he struggled initially to make an impact against Mr Johnson, buoyed by his victory and by finally taking Britain out of the EU.

A little more than a year into the job, he came close to quitting after seeing Labour crash to a humiliating by-election defeat in the formerly safe seat of Hartlepool, despite him having made multiple campaign visits to the constituency.

After that “near-death experience”, his wife, Victoria, was among those who rallied round and persuaded him to carry on.

The emergence of the so-called “partygate” scandal saw a dramatic reversal in political fortunes, as voters turned against Mr Johnson and the Tories while Sir Keir steadily dragged Labour back to electability.

He systematically strengthened his grip on the party, with a string of by-election victories while moving to claim the political centre ground with the promotion of a clutch of Blairites in last year’s shadow cabinet.

In the election he has been happy to drape himself in the Union flag, appearing at one press conference backed by medal-wearing military veterans now standing as Labour candidates – an event impossible to imagine under Mr Corbyn.

Yet he (along with the Tories) had been heavily criticised for a lack of transparency over how he will grapple with the fundamental issues facing a country still in shock after a massive cost-of-living squeeze while public services crumble.

His cautious approach has been likened to someone carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly-polished floor, desperate to avoid any last-minute slip that could cost him dear with victory so close at hand.

As he becomes the first Labour leader in almost a decade and a half to take the reins of power, the coming weeks and months should finally reveal to voters what kind of premier they have elected.