Dull but determined: Meet Keir Starmer, Britain’s likely next prime minister

By Luke McGee, CNN

Liverpool CNN  —  Things are about to change dramatically in British politics. At least that’s how it felt in Liverpool, where the opposition Labour Party held its annual conference this week.

In front of a packed hall, Labour leader Keir Starmer gave an upbeat speech painting the ruling Conservatives as the party of national decline and Labour as the party of stability.

Starmer’s speech – which was glitter-bombed early by a protestor – may have been light on detail, but its intent was best summed up with dig at the Conservative government: “Turn our back on never-ending Tory decline with a decade of national renewal.”

Unlike the governing Conservative Party’s meeting, which took place in Manchester last week, the speeches and events in Liverpool this week have been packed with excited members, lobbyists and reporters.

While waiting for a keynote speech – one of many which saw lines of people snake around the venue – a party member told CNN: “It’s like the Magaluf strip, but filled with policy nerds.”

That comparison to one of Europe’s best-known party destinations might be a bit of an overstatement for what is essentially four days of too many people crammed into small rooms talking about thrilling subjects like taxation and infrastructure. But there is something in the air.

A protestor throws glitter over Labour party leader, Keir Starmer during the leader's speech at the Labour Party conference on October 10, 2023 in Liverpool, England.

A buoyant mood

These conferences are usually stressful slogs where attendees dash from one event to another trying to see all of the raw politics on display – particularly the warring party factions holding pointed fringe events attacking one another, or actually engaging in open conflict in front of delegates.

Then there’s the after-hours private parties, where the real gossip spills into the small hours of the morning.

This year’s conference season is particularly stressful as it is likely the last before the next general election, which typically would make the events busier and the rhetoric wilder.

But inside the Liverpool conference zone in northern England, corporate lobbyists, reporters, business executives, Labour members and Conservative Party spies searching for dirt (yes, really), are congenially drinking outside the main conference hotel in which leader Keir Starmer and his top team are staying.

Those mingling are largely in agreement that, barring some major disaster, Labour is the next party of government.

This is a long way of saying that this unusual level of certainty and unity means that the mood among the Labour faithful is buoyant.

And why wouldn’t it be? The party is, as things stand, the clear favorite to win the next general election after 13 years in opposition. Highlights of those 13 years for Labour include: three election losses; a hard-left takeover of the party; and losing traditional voters because of Brexit and accusations of antisemitism.

After former leader Jeremy Corbyn took over in 2015, he and his supporters moved the party significantly to the left. He was warned many times that his radical political history – nuclear disarmament, calling terror groups including Hamas “friends,” inviting Northern Irish terrorists to the UK parliament – would make the party unelectable. He consequently lost two general elections as Labour leader.

The party was bitterly divided after the election loss of 2019, which forced Corbyn’s resignation.

When Starmer took over from Corbyn, he oversaw a slow purging of the left. Corbyn was thrown out of the party after a report blamed him for antisemitism growing in the party under his leadership.

For all Starmer has stabilized Labour and brought it back to the mainstream, the reversal in its fortune also owes some thanks to the Conservatives’ self-destruction: Boris Johnson’s “Partygate” scandal, Liz Truss’ chaotic handling of the economy and an internal war – a clear sign of a party aware its time in power could be ending.

For that reason, it was expected that Labour and its leader, Starmer, would simply try to get through this week without rocking the boat. If you are winning by default, why take any risks?

That assumption has largely held true. Very little explicit policy has been announced in Liverpool. Rather, there were a series of speeches aimed at those who would have run a million miles from the party just a few years ago. This is no hard-left rabble, they want to project, but competent professionals who can be trusted with the nation.

Government in waiting

It was also assumed that the party would try to put some flesh on the bones of Starmer’s personality. He has been criticized by a vocal minority in his party for being too boring and lacking conviction. “What about this dull man with no real opinions is supposed to inspire me,” said a former Labour adviser.

Starmer’s background is impressive – aspirational, even – but not exactly thrilling. As a clever child, he went to a selective state school, rather than a private school like so many at the top of British politics. Unlike many of his counterparts, he got an undergraduate degree in law at the University of Leeds, rather than studying politics or economics at Oxford or Cambridge.

He became a successful lawyer, eventually rising to one of the top legal positions in the country: Director of Public Prosecutions. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2014 for “services to law and criminal justice.”

Starmer’s advisers insist that his background appeals to British voters, according to their focus groups, and that they had initially intended to use this conference to paint their leader as a man of integrity – in stark contrast to the Conservative leaders of recent years.

On Sunday night, that seemed to be what was happening. Shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, told a private reception full of party members stories of the Starmer he has known for years.

He described private conversations that took place during a period when Starmer was investigated by police for a potential breach of Covid rules. Lammy told Starmer he shouldn’t tell the public in advance that he would resign if found guilty; Starmer ignored him, because he’d called on Johnson to do exactly the same thing months earlier. Starmer was ultimately found innocent, while Johnson was fined by police for breaking his own lockdown rules.

However, as the conference went on, a different story began to emerge – one that is not just focused on Starmer.

Usually at these events, the main stage is a place for stuffy keynote speeches from the party’s senior figures mostly ignored by the delegates in favor of more exciting, boozy parties and fringe events.

While this year’s keynote speeches weren’t exactly exciting, they generated plenty of excitement. When Starmer’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves spoke on Monday afternoon, not only did the line of attendees snake around the conference center, but those who couldn’t get in the room stood around screens applauding.

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves makes her keynote speech during the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool on October 9, 2023.

This was in stark contrast to Conservative Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s speech in Manchester last week, which was poorly attended due to former prime minister Truss and several of her acolytes holding a rival event during which they essentially trashed their own party’s economics policy.

There’s no such disunity here in Liverpool. The fringes are largely on message (even the ones on the Israel and Hamas conflict attended by Corbyn fans) while the majority of the party is laser focused on not messing up and throwing away an election that they should win.

The story Labour is telling right now isn’t just the story of Keir Starmer, leader in waiting, but Keir Starmer and his political allies, who are the government in waiting.

They are serious about leading Britain into a new future and they will not take the responsibility of office lightly. You won’t get ill-considered policy, internal spats and leadership challenges, they are saying, you will get serious politicians who want to restore some normality to a country that has been governed by vandals for more than a decade.

Labour’s election to lose

Not everyone is happy with this slow and steady approach. Critics on the left of the party told CNN that the conference was a “micro-managed festival of nothing” run by a man who “will end up being a placeholder prime minister then hand it back to the Conservatives after five years.”

Another critic on the right of the party said that “Starmer can bore his way into power, but look at how that worked out for Biden in America, where Trump is coming back, and in Germany where the far-right is growing.”

However, even his critics – marginal voices in Starmer’s Labour – concede that he is likely to be the next prime minister. Going into this week’s conference, that was something that made some Labour members nervous, as they slowly came to terms with the next election being theirs to lose.

And to be clear, they still could. Sunak and the Conservatives still have a very real chance of turning things around.

But this week in Liverpool, the carefully controlled message coming from Labour’s top team convinced supporters that, rather than Starmer’s good fortunes being down to luck and the Conservative’s incompetence, his steady hand is a deliberate tactic.

And right now, it seems possible large parts of the country are ready for it.

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