Meet Keir

What we know about Britain’s new prime minister and how he will lead.

All prime ministers bring their own personality and approach to the job. Each has a different style of leadership, which can shape how things work and what gets done. Herbert Asquith famously summed it up when he said being prime minister is all about “what the holder chooses and is able to make of it”.


When searching for clues as to how Keir Starmer will choose to be Britain’s prime minister, there isn’t too much to go on. When asked directly on a recent podcast, he declared “an inclusive, determined prime minister who will look out for everyone in the country”. This only takes us so far, as it’s rather hard to imagine anyone saying the opposite (except, perhaps, Nigel Farage). But sifting through what we know, we can at least make a start at piecing together the puzzle.


In terms of his personality and approach, Starmer has been described as “methodical, professional, good on detail but lacking in flair”. He is very likely to be what the late MP and historian David Marquand called a “pragmatic operator”. Not for Starmer the visionary appeal or oratory fireworks of a Tony Blair or Harold Wilson. But nor is he simply a “machine politician”.


Starmer comes across as a quiet, experienced man, who speaks of values and of being a socialist (though the public are unsure if he is, or if that’s a good or bad thing). He can justifiably say he has a more authentic working-class background than many of his predecessors.


We do know that Starmer only became a member of parliament in 2015, so, at 52, was a relative latecomer to politics. He has spent the entirety of his political career in opposition. His predecessors, going back to Theresa May, came to the role with substantial experience of being a government minister (though, you may point out, it didn’t do them much good).


Yet Starmer’s time in parliament has been more intense than most. He was deeply involved in Brexit, and then led his party during the pandemic. As leader of the opposition, he saw two prime ministers removed in quick succession (and played a large role in removing at least one, with his methodical lawyer’s approach). Now, he has taken down a third.

Man on a mission


Importantly, Starmer has led what is effectively a large government department. His five years as director of public prosecutions (DPP) means he comes into Number 10 as an experienced leader having, rather unusually, run a state organisation before his political career had even begun.


Starmer’s experience as DPP implies an emphasis on delivering. We can expect him to focus on fixing problems, finding solutions, and getting things done. We can also perhaps expect more emphasis on outcomes and an end to the politicisation and battles with the bureaucratic machinery of government that characterised the previous administration.


It has been suggested that Starmer’s will be a mission-led government, organised around a set of guiding, longer-term missions with the goal of delivering certainty and sustained change. This idea is not new or particularly radical but it may appear so after the seeming chaos and short-termism of recent years.


How, and how swiftly, decisions are made – or not made – will be the crucial test. Starmer’s apparent indecision over the net zero agenda could be the shape of things to come. Being methodical and interested in detail can be shorthand for delay and indecision.


He has hinted at being a consultative leader: “The best decisions I’ve made in my life were those held up to the light and that survived scrutiny. The worst were when nobody said ‘boo’”. However his penchant for “undersharing”, as noted by his deputy Angela Rayner, may mean he keeps decision-making concentrated in a small group of confidants.


Man of mystery


A Starmer-led government is likely, especially with a large parliamentary majority, to be empowered to make changes. As a self-described socialist and progressive, Starmer can hardly avoid it. But how radical will he be? One former Labour minister spoke of how “he is very impressive, but he never strays too far beyond the boundaries. Even when he was a radical lawyer, he was one of a conventional sort.”


Where exactly Starmer sits remains a mystery or “a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in something sensible and beige”. A supporter explained how “one of Keir’s greatest strengths is that he’s never been from, or beholden to, a particular faction of the Labour party”.


But one truism of political leadership is that what begins as a strength ends as a weakness. Lots of the fault lines within the Labour party are already visible, from child poverty to Gaza. Other issues are bubbling away. Starmer’s ability to float above the fray can’t last, and there are likely to be plots and challenges (especially if a large majority means underemployed backbenchers).


Here, Starmer sits within perhaps another classic dilemma of the Labour party and of Labour prime ministers: what David Marquand called the “progressive dilemma”, namely how far can you, and do you, push change, without stretching the support of the broad coalition who put you in the job? The approach has so far been caution, supported by a disciplined shadow cabinet, but a large majority may transform the situation.


Yet other leaders have made huge changes quietly. Theresa May, for example, pushed through a net zero law so silently that “nobody even noticed the Tories’ biggest legacy”.


However, to revisit the warning of Asquith, being prime minister is about what a leader is “able” to do. Events blow all governments off course, and plenty have been overwhelmed by crises. Starmer would do well to heed the warning of boxer Mike Tyson that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.


After his win, there is a weight of expectation on Starmer. But trust in all politicians is low and damaged. There will be pressing domestic issues over migration, public service funding, and the NHS. Abroad, as one Labour advisor warned, there is a “stormy world” from Gaza and Ukraine to the US election. The true test of what Prime Minister Starmer may be is when his methodical approach meets a messy world.

Mark Bennister is an Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Lincoln. Ben Worthy is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. This article was originally published on ‘The Conversation’.

Photo: Andy Buchanan, AFP

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