He's derided as dull but Keir Starmer becomes UK prime minister with a sensational victory

LONDON (AP) — For someone often derided as dull, Keir Starmer has delivered a sensational election result.

Starmer led Britain's Labour Party to a landslide election victory, and on Friday became the country's 58th prime minister — the first leader from the center-left party to win a U.K. national election since Tony Blair, who won three in a row starting in 1997.

It's the latest reinvention for a man who went from human rights attorney to hard-nosed prosecutor and from young radical to middle-aged pragmatist.

Like Blair, who refashioned the party as “New Labour” in the 1990s, 61-year-old Starmer led Labour to a landslide victory over Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party in Thursday’s election after dragging the party towards the political middle ground.

He won by promising voters change, but also calm, vowing to restore stability to public life and give Britain “the sunlight of hope” after 14 years of turmoil under the Conservatives.

“People look at Starmer and they see this guy who is very solid, clearly very able in his professional life,” said Douglas Beattie, author of “How Labour Wins (and Why it Loses).”

“I think people want that caution, they want that stability.”

A former chief prosecutor for England and Wales, Starmer has often been caricatured by Conservative opponents as a “lefty London lawyer.” He was knighted for his role leading the Crown Prosecution Service, and opponents like to use his title, Sir Keir Starmer, to paint him as elite and out of touch. While most prime ministers are awarded knighthoods, damehoods — the female equivalent — or other royal honors after their time in office, Starmer is the first knight of the realm to become the country's leader since Sir Alec Douglas-Hume in 1963.

Starmer prefers to stress his humble roots and down-to-earth tastes. He loves soccer — still plays the sport on weekends — and enjoys nothing more than watching Premier League team Arsenal over a beer in his local pub. He and his wife Victoria, who works in occupational health, have two teenage children they strive to keep out of the public eye.

During the campaign he was stubbornly resistant to revealing flashes of personality, telling a Guardian interviewer that he couldn’t remember any of his dreams, did not have a favorite novel and had no childhood fears.

When he did get personal, telling a journalist that he hopes to carve out Friday evenings to spend with his family — his wife is Jewish, and Friday-night Shabbat dinners are a family tradition — the Conservatives used it against him, claiming Starmer planned to be a part-time prime minister.

Born in 1963, Starmer is the son of a toolmaker and a nurse who named him after Keir Hardie, the Labour Party’s first leader. One of four children, he was raised in a cash-strapped household in a small town outside London.

“There were hard times,” he said in a speech launching his election campaign. “I know what out-of-control inflation feels like, how the rising cost of living can make you scared of the postman coming down the path: 'Will he bring another bill we can’t afford?'"

Starmer’s mother suffered from a chronic illness, Still’s disease, that left her in pain, and Starmer has said that visiting her in the hospital and helping to care for her helped form his strong support for the state-funded National Health Service.

He was the first member of his family to go to college, studying law at Leeds University and Oxford. As a lawyer, he took civil liberties cases including that of the “McLibel Two,” green activists sued by McDonald's for handing out leaflets saying the restaurant chain sold unhealthy food.

The cases often put him at odds with both Conservative and Labour governments, so his switch to become chief prosecutor in 2008 surprised some colleagues. But during five years in the job he gained a reputation as a tough and hard-working director of public prosecutions, a role that included prosecuting people charged with terrorism, organized crime and other serious offenses.

Starmer entered politics relatively late, in his 50s, and was elected to Parliament in 2015. He often disagreed with the party leader at the time, staunch socialist Jeremy Corbyn, at one point quitting the party’s top team over disagreements, but agreed to serve as Labour’s Brexit spokesman under Corbyn.

Starmer has faced repeated questions about that decision, and about urging voters to support Corbyn, a divisive figure under whose leadership the party was hammered in the 2019 election.

He said he wanted to stay and fight to change Labour, arguing that “leaders are temporary, but political parties are permanent.”

After Corbyn led Labour to election defeats in 2017 and 2019 — the latter the party’s worst result since 1935 — Labour picked Starmer to lead efforts to rebuild.

His leadership has coincided with a turbulent period that saw Britain suffer through the COVID-19 pandemic, leave the EU, absorb the economic shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and endure economic turmoil from Liz Truss’ turbulent 49-day term as prime minister in 2022.

Voters are weary from a cost-of-living crisis, a wave of public sector strikes and political turmoil that saw the Conservative Party dispatch two prime ministers within weeks in 2022 — Boris Johnson and Truss — before installing Sunak to try to steady the ship.

Starmer imposed discipline on a party with a well-earned reputation for internal division, ditched some of Corbyn’s socialist policies and apologized for antisemitism that an internal investigation concluded had been allowed to spread under Corbyn.

Starmer promised “a culture change in the Labour Party.” His mantra is now “country before party.”

Starmer has promised voters that a Labour government can ease Britain’s chronic housing crisis and repair its fraying public services, especially the creaking health service — but without imposing tax increases or deepening the public debt.

“While I don’t think anyone is particularly excited about Keir Starmer, I think he has done a good job of situating himself as the kind of competent grown up in the room who is going to be able to bring government back to where it belongs,” said Lise Butler, senior lecturer in modern history at City University of London.

Starmer will face pressure to deliver quickly. He has already dismayed some supporters by watering down a pledge to spend billions investing in green technology, saying a Labour government would not borrow more to fund public spending.

Starmer was a strong opponent of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, but now says a Labour government won’t seek to reverse Brexit, another disappointment to many in the party.

“A lot of people on the left will accuse him of letting them down, betraying socialist principles. And a lot of people on the right accuse him of flip-flopping,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

“But, hey, if that’s what it takes to win, then I think that tells you something about Starmer’s character. He will do whatever it takes — and has done whatever it takes — to get into government.”


Associated Press writer Danica Kirka contributed to this story.


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