Keir Starmer biographer Tom Baldwin says the Prime Minister in waiting is “decent, but ruthless”

Image: Julian Worricker and Tom Baldwin at The Chiswick Calendar’s Media Club in the Boston Room of George IV

“Decent but ruthless”

The local and mayoral elections were the last big test of how the public is feeling about politics before the next election, widely expected to be in November. Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian: ‘Triumphant Starmer already seems like the prime minister’.

The headline was quickly followed with a caution, that these were local elections about local issues, not an opinion poll, but this was the worst performance for the Tories in council elections in 40 years. If they weren’t already writing about Labour winning the next election, most political pundits are now.

The author of the recent biography of Keir Starmer, Tom Baldwin, spoke to BBC journalist Julian Worricker at The Chiswick Calendar’s Media Club event last week about what Keir Starmer was like and whether he will be more radical in government. He has known him for years, working with him in the Labour Party.

The overriding impression I took away from the evening was his statement that Sir Keir is “decent but ruthless”. On issues such as Gaza, which has cost Labour votes in these elections and lost him the by-election in Rochdale to George Galloway, he has chosen the path which he thinks will not scupper Labour’s chances of winning.

Labour party supporters were gleeful at the announcement that Labour will renationalise the railways. A good, firm, specific promise they could hang their hats on after months of frustrating caution that have made it hard to pin down exactly what Labour would do in government, given the chance.

But that’s the point. Keir has been very careful not to offer any hostages to fortune, any policies that might frighten the horses.

“He hates being in opposition. He told me the last fourteen years are the period in his life when he’s achieved the least” said Tom.

Not your average politician

Tom’s book is “authoritative but not authorised”. A journalist who has worked for a number of national titles including The Times and The Sunday Telegraph, he has also worked as a Special Adviser to Ed Miliband and served as Director of Communications and Strategy for the Labour Party.

He was brought in when Starmer’s aides thought it a good idea for the party leader to write his autobiography, but Tom said:

“It quickly became clear to me that he didn’t want it – his aides did. Most politicians want to talk about themselves, but he doesn’t.”

Sir Keir Starmer very unusual in that respect, said Tom. He wants to get on and take decisions in government, but he has no desire to get caught up in all the superficial nonsense of creating a personal brand.

“I don’t think he was ever one of those people who stood in front of the mirror at the age of 16practising his conference speech. He was the first person in his family to go to university. He spent three decades working as a barrister. It was only right towards the end that he decided to go into politics, because he couldn’t make the changes he wanted. To do that he had to get his hands on the levers of power.”

So it became a book about him written by Tom, rather than an autobiography ghosted by Tom. He said he would write it on the condition that there was no interference from the party, and he says, there has not been.

Plotting his leadership campaign while still in Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet

Sir Keir Starmer was elected in 2015 to represent the constituency of Holborn and St Pancras and following Jeremy Corbyn’s win in the 2016 Labour Party leadership election he accepted the position of  Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.

“The sum of his ambition was to be the Attorney General in Ed Miliband’s government. He nearly left the shadow cabinet twice. He did leave once, but he thought it was important that somebody who understood the detail [of Brexit] was representing the Labour Party.”

He could see that Corbyn wasn’t working out and from 2018, for about 18 months while he was in the Shadow Cabinet and publicly loyal to the Labour Party leader, he was quietly having meetings at a friend’s house, to discuss his leadership campaign.

“He was quietly making friends with union leaders.”

Was that far-sighted and ruthless or two-faced and disloyal? Julian asked Tom.

“He did his job as Shadow Brexit Secretary and he didn’t criticise Corbyn in public. If asked now, neither of them would say they were friends. They haven’t spoken since the autumn of 2020 … but Keir is relentless in his pursuit of winning.”

He looked around, said Tom, and realised there was no one else who could do the job, so he went for it.

Trusted with the economy and security

It is a huge achievement, said Tom, that the Labour Party is now trusted with both running the economy and the country’s security. It was neither of those things under Corbyn.

When Keir took over from Corbyn as leader the Labour Party were 20 points behind the Tories. They reached level pegging then fell back again. He nearly resigned when they lost the Hartlepool by-election.

“He spent all day trying to resign. He had to be persuaded that he could win a general election, not just stay as Leader of the Labour Party in opposition.”

Labour winning the West Midlands mayor this time around is a huge triumph for Labour. It was the jewel in the Conservatives’ crown and losing it is as totemic for them as losing Hartlepool was for Labour in 2021.

When Keir made his decision to stay on as Leader he then pushed through party reform.

“He faced down the Left, who were heckling and holding red cards out. His superpower is to bring that level of change at that pace and have journalists like Quentin Letts say: ‘but he’s so boring’.

“He is the grown up in a room of very childish politicians.”

Hates being called ‘boring’ and hates Boris Johnson

“He hates being called boring,” said Tom. “He doesn’t think he’s boring. His friends don’t think he’s boring. He’s great company with his friends. He becomes wooden in front of the TV cameras.”

Part of this public persona is a desperate wish to protect his private life and his family. He had a “scary dad” said Tom, a mother who is ill and a brother with learning difficulties.

“I had to drag that stuff out of him. He cried quite a lot. He doesn’t want to let politics contaminate his private life. If the cameras aren’t there, then he lets go.”

He refined his public persona over decades in courtrooms and much as his aides might want him to, he finds his courtroom personality hard to let go. For him politics is serious, and he has an abhorrence of people playing politics.

“He hates the way Boris Johnson treats politics as a game and bullshits his way through with some Latin quotation and a joke.”

Will he be more radical in power?

“The rusting wrecks of radical ideas litter the country” said Tom. “What we haven’t had for quite some time is a grown-up, with sensible, pragmatic ideas. We’ll see.”

Why won’t the Labour Party commit to undoing Brexit?

He is not going to rejoin the EU. The Labour Party has made that clear. Why not, when all the indications are that it has been a complete disaster?

“Brexit is an unmitigated disaster. He will mitigate some of the effects rather than spending his whole first term reopening the whole debate.

“He’s not going to rejoin the Single Market but he is looking at easy visas. He’s looking at alignment on carbon markets, without which it won’t work – sensible, achievable policies.

“Labour wants an EU security pact. If Trump wins, we may find ourselves fighting Putin without the help of America.

“They are thinking very hard about these decisions already. Taking decisions like a Government in waiting.”

Our thanks to Julian Worricker and Tom Baldwin. Keir Starmer – The Biography is available to buy in local bookshops, as is the other book Tom Baldwin has just published with co-author Marc Stears: England – Seven Myths That Changed a Country, and How to Set them Straight.

Future Media Club events

Wednesday 29 May – Mihir Bose talks about his memoir

Our next Media Club event in the Boston Room of George IV will be on Wednesday 29 May when journalist Peter Oborne will be talking to sports journalist Mihir Bose about his memoir, Thank you Mr Crombie, in which he describes growing up in India post Independence, coming to Britain in the 1960s and the changing face of multicultural Britain he has witnessed in his lifetime.

Book tickets – The Chiswick Calendar Media Club with Peter Oborne and Mihir Bose.

Wednesday 19 June – How to report an election

Then on Wednesday 19 June we will be talking about how to report an election, with a panel of experts pooling their many years of experience in reporting elections on TV and radio – the triumphs and the pitfalls.

BBC Political correspondent and presenter Carolyn Quinn chairs a panel with other journalists and a pollster – all players in the political dramas that have characterised elections in recent years.

Katy Searle, former Executive Editor, Politics, with BBC News, managed the BBC’s most prominent news output and political coverage during three election campaigns, two referendums and the Covid crisis.

Joe Twynan is a co-founder and director of Deltapoll and one of Britain’s best known political pollsters, having previously worked as Head of Political and Social Research at YouGov.

With one more special guest to be confirmed, this is the perfect line up of guests to find out what it’s like behind the scenes at these high-stakes, adrenalin-fuelled all-nighters where bleary-eyed politicians and pundits nip in and out of the various media studios making predictions which can make them look either wise beyond their years or very foolish minutes later and careers are lost and won on the announcement of the returning officer.

Book tickets – The Chiswick Calendar Media Club: How to report an election panel

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