Sir Keir Starmer: New Labour leader is a natural fit – but still provokes more questions than answers

Who is Keir Starmer?

Is he the high-flying young human rights lawyer who some believe was the inspiration for Mark Darcy in The Diary of Bridget Jones?

Is he the wily politician who quit the shadow cabinet in 2016 in an attempt to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn, then happily served as shadow Brexit secretary rarely speaking out against his boss?

Or is he the bland leadership contender who amassed support from across the Labour Party by being all things to all people?

The answer: Even his natural supporters aren’t quite sure.

Sir Keir won the Labour crown without picking a side or making enemies. He carefully recruited staff for his campaign team from all wings of the party, avoided any whiff of controversy and bristled at attempts to categorise or pigeon-hole his politics.

He certainly looks the part. Colleagues joke that Sir Keir is “straight out of central casting” and if an e-fit was created from all the attributes a political leader should possess, it would match him perfectly.

Most Labour members have now come to the realisation that Jeremy Corbyn’s replacement should be a winner. It is difficult to underestimate the pain, distress and desolation that they felt after the party’s devastating general election performance in December.

Electability and unity have therefore been the two key tenets of Starmer’s campaign. Uniting a divided party is a noble aim, yet there is scant evidence he is able to make tough decisions, especially those which may anger certain sections of his party.

Concentrating on collaboration and consensus has its limits.

With widespread confusion over what sort of a leader Keir Starmer intends to be, allies realise he will only have a short time to define himself. Otherwise others – particularly the Conservatives – will do that for him.

The most pressing, and perhaps consequential, decisions are who to put in his shadow cabinet, with the first appointments expected tomorrow. Sorting Labour’s antisemitism problem is also a priority, and likely to be tackled within his first week.

Yet with party politics paused due to the coronavirus crisis, his biggest challenge may be striking the right tone in tense times – holding the government to account without attempting to sow division at a time of national unity.

Named after Labour’s first parliamentary leader Keir Hardie, he was born in Southwark, south London, and grew up in Oxted, Surrey.

His father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse forced to quit her job due to Still’s Disease, an auto-immune condition which left her in a wheelchair and unable to eat.

He studied at Reigate Grammar alongside Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim) and Andrew Cooper, who later became a Tory peer and director of strategy to David Cameron.

Sir Keir adopted his parents’ politics and joined the Labour Party as a teenager. He studied law at Leeds University and was a postgraduate student at Oxford.

His socialism was evident in his work as a young barrister. He focused on human rights cases including assisting the “McLibel Two” – a pair of environment activists sued by McDonald’s for distributing a leaflet critical of the company.

He was later appointed Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) running a large organisation in the Crown Prosecution Service, experience that he claims is perfect preparation for getting to grips with Labour’s unwieldy structures. He was knighted in 2014.

In 2015 Keir Starmer succeeded Frank Dobson as MP for Holborn and St Pancras, a safe Labour seat in central London.

A lifelong pro-European and internationalist, in 2016 he was appointed shadow Brexit secretary, a role in which he edged the party towards backing a second referendum, a position criticised by many for helping lose pro-Leave seats in Labour’s northern heartlands.

Married with two children, Sir Keir is a football fan and plays five-a-side on Sundays. As an Arsenal season ticket holder, he has witnessed the perils of leadership and splits amongst supporters.

Like Arsene Wenger, Jeremy Corbyn was loved by many for his fundamental philosophy and the purity of his mission. But in both politics and football, fans ultimately want a winner.

If Keir Starmer is to get his team back to winning ways it will be over many years through steady, solid leadership. But until we find out who he really is, it is tough to judge how he might achieve that.

For now, he remains a man who provokes more questions than answers.

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