I had never met Sir Keir Starmer before his arrival in the Commons, and it was only in the last four of my thirty years in Parliament that he was the MP for Holborn and St Pancras. During the short time we both sat on the Labour benches, we did not have a proper conversation. (He was not fond of those of us who had campaigned to leave the EU.)
So I read with some eagerness Red Knight by Michael Ashcroft and Keir Starmer by Nigel Cawthorne, two new biographies of the Labour Leader, hopeful that through them I would be able to learn what his attraction was to those who had supported him for Leader. I could not have been more disappointed, as Starmer comes across as even more bland and boring in print than he is in person.
The publication of two books about the Labour Leader at more or less the same time indicates a sudden rush of interest in him as a future Prime Minister. Both are written with the intention to help the public understand what he would seek to achieve if in power.
Neither is a particularly easy read because Starmer is so lacking in colour. Cawthorne’s, frankly, is quite a struggle to finish. It is short on deep research and relies on anecdotes and Starmer’s own account of events. Cawthorne seems to write more as a fan (he attended the same grammar school as Starmer, though not at the same time). Indeed, having learnt that Starmer had obstructed Ashcroft’s book, I wondered whether he had given Cawthorne his blessing! It is noticeably light on detail, friendly and appears to have been written in a hurry.
Ashcroft’s is by a country mile the better, being well-researched and well-written. He has clearly taken some trouble to speak with as many people as possible in order to paint a proper portrait of Starmer. His solid account of Starmer’s early life is entertaining, even if the subject is mundane. He tells us that Starmer’s father was not simply a working class factory hand, but a self-employed skilled tradesman operating a successful tool-making business. Starmer’s claim that he was thoroughly working class is a little exaggerated; it overlooks his education at Reigate, an all-boys grammar school that became private during his time there.
It was a surprise to find Ashcroft so balanced in his assessment. I suspect he went out of his way to be even-handed because it would be assumed by many that as a Conservative, he would produce a hatchet job. His book is by no means that, though reading closely it can be seen that instead of getting his own hands dirty, he lets some of those whom he interviewed denounce Starmer, albeit subtly. For example, Professor Bill Bowring who has known Starmer since the ’80s says the weakness of the Labour Leader is his addiction to banging on about his working class roots despite evidence to the contrary. Sources who worked with him in the law tell how he was always a poor public speaker who earned his spurs by being good at paperwork. This, rather than intellectual brilliance, was apparently the key to his success. So he was a plodder — a bit like he is as Labour Leader now. Mark Seddon, a former Tribune Editor, ex-NEC member and one-time Starmer supporter, openly writes off his chances as a Leader.
This is not to say that Starmer is incapable of ruthlessness. One Labour MP tells of the shock when he blatantly lobbied for the Labour Leadership at the funeral of Frank Dobson just a short while after the 2019 election defeat. In Ashcroft’s riveting but rather sad account of Starmer’s period as Director of Public Prosecutions, it is stated that he only got the top job in 2008 because the competition was so weak. He is then lambasted for apparent mistakes in two key police operations: Operation Elvedon into leaks by public officials, and Operation Midland into alleged child abuse. Quotes from ex-Tory MP Harvey Proctor make for very uncomfortable reading. Essentially, Proctor says, Starmer ruined his life.
Both authors show that Starmer has concentrated so fiercely on mastering the intricacies of all aspects of the law and the legal system that he has very little hinterland. In his youth he learnt to play the flute well. He has always enjoyed playing football, and still does, but the theme of his life has been his desire to change the balance of the legal system. He wants to replace its current purpose of defending individuals from attacks on rights such as their property and persons, with a legal code defending citizens’ rights in the abstract. In other words, the rights of citizens to an equal share in the wealth of the nation would trump individual property rights to retain a significant part of their income. Cawthorne makes clear that Starmer is a strong advocate of the state judging who does or does not deserve to flourish in his ideal nation.
Starmer’s plan was the final sell-out of our promise to honour the referendum result
Although Starmer only entered politics at the age of fifty-two, Ashcroft suggests that he aspired to political leadership much earlier. His game plan required him to achieve excellence in his profession (human rights law), a significant role on the national stage (DPP) and a public political profile in an important role in Parliament (Shadow Brexit Secretary). In the latter role, his lawyerly mind created the plan of offering the public a Labour Party that would somehow renegotiate the Tory Treaty with the EU, then put the new Treaty to a referendum. Bizarrely, Labour would then vote against its own new Treaty and if the vote was “No”, then the UK would stay in the EU. For me along with many others, this was the final sell-out of our promise to honour the referendum result, and we resigned our membership. Starmer had clearly no understanding of the anger of people in those staunch Labour areas now known as Red Wall seats. He allowed his legal thought process to override any political antennae.
In answer to the question these books try to tackle — what would Starmer be like as prime minister? — I can only surmise that he would continue to see all matters through the eyes of a lawyer and try to resolve difficulties in a legalistic way. Neither book gives any examples of him as a Leader: laying out a plan of action and rallying support for it through the force of his personal conviction, the deployment of some inherent charm or exercising the power of effective oratory.
Both books describe, in excessive detail, a hard working, ambitious man who aimed to achieve high political office but lacks the personal requirements to generate a passionate and inspired following.
Readers will make up their own minds as to his chances of becoming prime minister, but nothing in these books suggests he can.
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