‘Stop talking about the problem – fix the bloody thing!’ Keir Starmer on Boris Johnson’s parties and his plan to win power

There could not be a better day to meet Sir Keir Starmer than last Wednesday. A few hours earlier, at Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson had apologised for his presence at a Downing Street party held during lockdown in a manner that was as ludicrous as it was humiliating. When the prime minister said that he didn’t realise the 30 aan 40 people gathered in his garden boozing and eating food from a long table constituted a party, Starmer told him he had run out of road. “His defence that he didn’t realise he was at a party is so ridiculous that it’s actually offensive to the British public,” Starmer told the Commons. “Is he now going to do the decent thing and resign?” Not surprisingly, partygate has helped Labour to its biggest lead over the Conservatives since 2013.

I half expect the leader of the opposition to be on a high. But I am not sure he does highs. Starmer is the anti-Johnson. While the prime minister appears to pride himself on being a feckless buffoon, Starmer is the straight man’s straight man – so solid he verges on stolid. He rises to greet me and offers an elbow by way of a handshake. He is wearing blue trousers and a pristine white shirt, sleeves rolled up. It is a metaphor as much as a sartorial statement.

Starmer is always well briefed, as you would expect of a QC and a former director of the Crown Prosecution Service. Today is no exception. “I hear we’ve got a few things in common,” he says by way of introduction. “We both went to Leeds university. What did you do there? And did you live in Chestnut Avenue?” Why, I ask. “That’s where I lived.” As it happens, we were in the same year at university and I did live in Chestnut Avenue – although we didn’t know each other.

A former housemate mentioned recently that Starmer came to our parties, but I don’t remember him. Starmer was exceptionally intelligent (he graduated with a first in law), [object Window] (in old photos, he looks like he has stepped out of an 80s indie band), a decent footballer (he turned out for the law department), a talented musician (violin, piano and flute) and active in Labour politics – yet somehow he had the ability to slip under the radar. He still has it. This may prove to be his strength as a leader – he became an MP, for Holborn and St Pancras in London, in 2015 and was Labour’s boss within a blink – but also his weakness. People ask who exactly Starmer is and what he really stands for.

I ask if he thinks Johnson has got himself into even more trouble with his fantastical excuse that he didn’t initially know it was a party. “The cover-up isn’t worse than the crime, but the cover-up compounds the crime.” Starmer shuts his eyes and puts a hand over his forehead in deep concentration, as if digging out a file from the recesses of his mind. “Johnson’s now on his third defence. His first defence when we tackled him on this at the beginning of December was: ‘I’ve been assured there were no parties,’ and his second defence when the video came out was: ‘I’m furious there have been these parties; I’ve only just found out.’ And if the third defence is true, then obviously the first two are false – and that’s a major problem for him.”

One problem for Starmer is that he still talks like a lawyer. It is the best part of two years since he won the Labour leadership election with a whopping 56% of the vote. Four months earlier, Johnson’s Tories romped to an 80-seat majority in the general election, after which Jeremy Corbyn resigned as the leader of a Labour party mired in an antisemitism scandal. I ask how much progress has been made since then. “We had to learn the lesson that we lost badly not because the electorate was at fault, but because it was us. And we needed to change our party. That was job No 1, starting with antisemitism. We had to tackle it and tear it out by the roots," hy sê.

Starmer makes his case calmly, systematically. “The next job was prosecuting the case that the government is not fit to govern and they should go. And that’s what we’re doing, ably assisted by the prime minister. That was a hard case to prosecute till we got through a good bit of Covid, and quite difficult to prosecute just after they’d won an election. The third bit is: if they’re not fit to govern, why are we the government in waiting? And for me that’s what 2022 is all about. That’s a long answer to your question.” Starmer is not a man for sexy soundbites.

His office is huge and bland. With Corbyn, it was easy to play Through the Keyhole. His office was full of giveaways: file after ancient file documenting radical causes; Stop the War posters; a historical Islington Trade Council banner; multicoloured tequilas from Venezuela. Vandag, there is nothing that shouts Starmer. (Look carefully and you will find a mug that says “Keir” and a modest photo of his wife, Victoria, and their two children, a 13-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl whose names he has not revealed to the press to protect their privacy.) This suits him fine. Na alles, he is not only positioning himself as the anti-Johnson, but also the anti-Corbyn. As so often, wel, nothing is as simple as it appears. Starmer may play the arch-centrist now, but he stood on a radical platform to win the Labour leadership.

He should be the leader the party has waited so long for – the working-class boy named after a Arbeid legend who rose to the top by dint of his ability. What could go wrong? Ten spyte van alles, people have found Starmer hard to relate to – starchy, metropolitan, dull and controlling. It is only now that he is beginning to cut through – and that is almost wholly because of Johnson’s behaviour.

He gives me a potted history of the Labour party and general elections. “We’ve only really won three times. Obviously, Blair won three elections, but we won in 1945 with Attlee, in the 60s with Wilson and we won in ’97 and onwards with Blair. They were three very different leaders, but the one thing they had in common was an ability to glimpse the future and persuade people to come on a journey with them. None of those three said: ‘We’re going to manage the present better than the Tories.’ They all said: ‘There’s a different future out there and it’s better.’”

It is a good point. With these three prime ministers (Starmer doesn’t mention Ramsay MacDonald, who led two minority Labour governments in the 20s), you could also sum up what they stood for in a second: Attlee’s welfare state, Wilson’s white heat of technology, Blair’s third way. How would you define Starmerism?

The 59-year-old has a habit of leaning into you when making a point or setting out his values. He talks about growing up in Oxted, Surrey. He says his father, a tool maker, felt patronised when he told people he worked in a factory. That, hy sê, taught him the importance of “respect”. His own education at Reigate Grammar (which became an independent school when he was there and now charges £20,000 a year) was a lesson in the importance of “opportunity”, while family conversations about unpaid bills and his mother’s dependence on the NHS (she had a rare and debilitating type of arthritis known as Still’s disease) taught him about the need for “security”. They are powerful stories, but they don’t make for a political vision in themselves.

“The broad frame is building a better Britain coming out of the pandemic,” Starmer says. 'Nou, what we mean by that is a Britain that is driven by security, opportunity and respect. Nou, what I mean by security is …”

O, Ek sien hulle weer in Desember, Keir, ek sê: three vague words aren’t going to win you an election. After Starmer published a 14,000-word essay on his vision in September, the Guardian’s Rafael Behr gave qualified praise for the words “security” and “opportunity”. “The problem is in the other 13,998, which suffocate decent ideas with platitude and entomb them in boilerplate," hy het gesê.

I ask Starmer, a former shadow Brexit secretary and ardent remainer, whether Brexit is done and dusted. “Ja," hy sê. 'Kyk, we’ve left the EU. There’s no case for rejoining, so we have to make it work. We are out and we’re staying out.” So that rules out a return to the single market or customs union under a Labour government? “Ja, it does. We’ve got to make Brexit work from the outside and not reopen old wounds.”

If he wants to impress “red wall” voters, when he suggested introducing zero VAT on fuel, shouldn’t he have trumpeted the fact that this could not have been done if Britain was still in Europe? “Ja, possibly. Ja, we do have to show what we can now do that we couldn’t do when we were in the EU. Another would be to take advantage of supporting our sectors and industries in a more meaningful way. We could also have our own framework for trade deals that reflect our values. That is part of what I mean by making Brexit work.”

His diary manager, Prentice, pops in to see if we want a cup of tea. “Very strong, Prentice please,” Starmer says. He segues to Labour’s September conference in an attempt to explain his vision. There is something biblical about the way he breaks down the days.

“On the Friday at conference, we announced a housing policy that said: ‘We’re going to redefine affordable housing, because at the moment what’s deemed to be affordable housing is way out of the reach of many many families.’ On the Saturday, Angela Rayner [the deputy leader] aangekondig the employment rights green paper – including sick pay from day one, flexible working and getting rid of fire-and-rehire. On the Sunday, ons het gesê: ‘We’re going to take the tax advantage available for public schools and put it into our state schools.’

“On the Monday, Rachel [Reeves, the shadow chancellor] steps up and says: ‘These are our fiscal rules.’ Then I come up on the Wednesday and say: This is what the future looks like; this is where technology plays a part to change the health service.’” He finally pauses. “And then people say to me: ‘You have not put anything on the table, Keir!’ Honestly! There’s more than enough for the whole Labour party to unite around, and if anybody is maintaining the argument that we’re not spelling out some of the things that matter most in what we’re going to do, then they’re not listening to what we’ve said.” He takes another breath. “I accept that’s because we need to up our game in communicating.”

There are plenty of positives, but I am still looking for the big idea. It is hard to imagine a Labour government going down in history for redefining affordable housing at the level of 30% of household income rather than 80% of average rents.

Does he want a Labour government to be remembered for its green new deal? His face lights up. “Ja! I want to be remembered for bringing about profound change in the country, part of which is a green new deal.” Would it involve nationalisation? He gives me a look. “I think that’s the wrong question. The question is: will it deliver the next generation of secure, high-skilled, high-paid jobs in the areas that need them, consistent with our obligations in relation to the climate crisis? You need a government that sets the mission, that gives the certainty and support to allow that change to happen in a partnership with business.” Perhaps it is not surprising that Starmer has been dismissed by some as a “Blair tribute act”.

He may say now that nationalisation is the wrong question, maar 18 months ago it appeared to be the answer. In die 10 pledges he made as prospective leader, under common ownership he stated: “Public services should be in public hands, not making profits for shareholders. Support common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water.” What has brought about such a change of heart? Were the pledges made just to get him elected? “Firstly, there is a distinction between common ownership and nationalisation. There are different forms of common ownership and top-down nationalisation is not one I’ve ever thought is right.” He says he has always preferred co-ops and mutuals. In elk geval, voeg hy by, the world has changed since 2019 because of the pandemic, fuel prices and Brexit. (Later, I find footage of the Labour leadership rivals being asked to raise their hands if they would renationalise water and electricity – they all do.)

He promised to unite the party with his radical agenda. Not only has he failed to do that, but he has made a point of not trying to do so. Membership has fallen by tens of thousands, not helped by the fact that many on the left have been kicked out of the party. I ask if he knew when he stood that he had no intention of standing by the radical agenda or the promise to unite the party. He argues that he has done much to unite Labour. “I was clear we would have to deal with antisemitism.” He says he has done so – and that it has united the party. “Don’t underestimate the extent to which the Labour party membership want to unite about winning, partifcularly at the moment. We’ve lost four elections in a row. We’ve not won an election since 2005. One thing Labour party members want is unity in winning.”

Your critics call you Stalinist, ek sê; they claim you have zero tolerance of ideological difference. I mention three high-profile cases. Corbyn was suspended from the party for his reaction to the findings of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s report into Labour’s handling of complaints about antisemitism; the suspension is over, but the whip is still withdrawn. After spending most of his life in the party, the film-maker Ken Loach was thrown out for opposing what he described as a “witch hunt”. Uiteindelik, he sacked the leftwing shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey after she retweeted an article in which the actor Maxine Peake claimed incorrectly that the Israeli secret service had taught American police the tactic of kneeling on necks that killed George Floyd. (Peake later apologised for the claim.)

“I said I was going to root out antisemitism in the party,” Starmer replies. “I meant it and followed through on it. And that meant doing tough things. And everything has followed from that.”

It was vital to tackle antisemitism in the party, ek sê, but doesn’t he feel his reaction in these cases was heavy-handed? Wouldn’t it have been wiser to say he was displeased with Corbyn’s reaction to the report, rather than going to war with him? As someone Jewish with fairly well-attuned antisemitism antennae, I tell him I think Peake’s comment was anti-Israel, rather than antisemitic. He says the sackings and expulsions have all been related to antisemitism.

That may be true, but at times you have to play six degrees of separation to get to the antisemitism. Byvoorbeeld, party members have been suspended for discussing Corbyn’s suspension after Labour’s general secretary, David Evans, barred them from doing so.

Has Starmer surprised himself by how tough he has been? "Geen," hy sê. He takes me back to his previous jobs. “Don’t underestimate how hard it is to sit in a cell with someone in the Caribbean who’s about to be hanged and take a critical decision about their case – the result: if you win, he lives; if you lose, he dies. Or the difficult stuff at the CPS, where we’re working on massive terrorist operations with the security and intelligence services on a live operation.”

This is when he starts sounding ruthlessly – and promisingly – prime ministerial. You sense he feels that if there was collateral damage from the antisemitism scandal, so be it. He is happy talking toughness all day long – prosecuting grooming gangs, deciding whether the mother of a man who went to Dignitas should be prosecuted, running a staff of about 7,000. I am looking at him as he talks. Despite the immaculate quiffed hair and white shirt, he has something of the street fighter about him – smaller than you might expect, broad, fit as a butcher’s proverbial.

Kyk, hy sê, he came into politics late and he didn’t do so to mess about. Is his late entry an advantage, I ask. “It means I’ve got a huge amount of experience I bring into politics. It means I’ve not got years of being within this group in politics or that group within politics. I haven’t got time for that. Ek. Haven’t. Got. Netflix se trefferfilm en die enigste dokumentêr wat sy wêreldlys met die meeste gekyk het boaan die top was. Vir. That.

Does that give him a sense of urgency? “I’ll tell you what it gives me a sense of … if there’s a problem, identify what it is and fix it. Don’t walk around it, talking about it, brilliantly, articulately, great oratory. Who cares? Stop talking about it; fix the bloody thing. If I’ve brought anything from my working life before into politics, it’s that sense of: stop talking about the problem; fix it.”

Verlede week, it was reported that Corbyn was considering launching a “Peace and Justice” party to run at the next general election. Would that pose a threat to Labour? "Geen, I have confidence in the offer that Labour will put forward for the next general election, and in my leadership to persuade people of it.”

We catch up five days later, on Monday evening. Starmer seems even more enraged by Johnson’s behaviour than he was last week. “It’s quite extraordinary that the prime minister has gone into hiding. It’s now in the public interest he’s gone, because he’s lost his moral authority, not just in relation to key messages on the pandemic, but all the other important issues – the cost of living, energy bills, waiting lists, an NHS seriously under strain and Russian troops massing on the Ukraine border.”

Despite a busy week, Starmer has managed to take part in a 50-minute podcast for The Athletic on his favourite subject – football. He is an Arsenal fan, reckons he goes to at least one match a week, still plays 90-minute matches with old friends and their children and could chat football for ever and a day if politics didn’t get in the way. He has found out I am a Manchester City fan and tells me about the time he was going out with a girl from Manchester, how often he went to watch City play at Maine Road and how he could never get his head around the strangely coloured urinals.

Intussen, the Daily Mail has accused him of breaking lockdown rules, showing him in an office campaigning in last May’s disastrous Hartlepool election drinking a bottle of beer with other people present. Starmer says he has nothing to apologise for. “No rules were broken – work rules at the time permitted the activity. I follow the rules at all times. I’m a former chief prosecutor – honesty and decency are non-negotiable for me.”

There is something that still baffles me. Starmer is a serious man from a working-class background and Johnson is an Old Etonian clown, yet the public appears to have found the latter easier to relate to – at least until now. Does he think the knighthood, received for services to the criminal justice system and law, alienates people? “I don’t think so," hy sê, voice rising slightly. “I’m proud of the honour bestowed by the Queen and, if I think of my own family, it is a mischaracterisation of millions of families to think that somehow it’s a problem to have been knighted by the Queen for having done something.”

So what is the problem, dan? “I think it has genuinely been very difficult through the pandemic to communicate and engage with people. On relatability, I just want a fair crack of the whip. When you see someone with a crowd, you see what they are like. All of that has been robbed for me for the first year and a half of me being leader of the Labour party.” The contrast between him and Johnson raises another question, hy sê. “Do you want a prime minister who thinks being prime minister is a branch of the entertainment industry, or do you want someone who is serious about politics? I came into this to change lives.”

He updates me on the last week in the Commons. “One of the developments since we spoke is Operation Save Big Dog!” He is talking about the Johnson-led campaign to save Johnson. “It seems to me it consists of scrapping the BBC, sacking junior staff and handing out honours to failed Tory ministers.” He pauses. “When you look at Operation Save Big Dog, they don’t want to save Johnson, they want him rehomed.” Another naff one-liner.

But I am thinking of Starmer the plumber, the man who wants to get things fixed. Sekerlik, it is going to be a mighty struggle to win over the left, while younger generations still show little sign of warming to him. But the toughness and the knowledge he brings from a life outside politics have to be assets. If he can reclaim some of the radicalism that got him elected and demonstrate that he is as committed to social justice as he was in his days as a lawyer, Starmer could be a contender.

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