In Britain, Conservative Party rule is unraveling, following the turbulent reign of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the failed fiscal experiments of his short-lived successor, Liz Truss, last year. Truss’s replacement, Rishi Sunak, hasn’t fared much better. The Euroskeptic coalition that has kept the Tories in office since 2016 is beginning to crumble as the Brexit crisis, now nearly a decade old, drops down the list of British voters’ priorities.
With a general election likely to take place before the end of 2024, Labour leader Keir Starmer could be the next British prime minister. His party currently has a 20-point advantage over the Conservative Party in the polls. Yet it’s not clear what type of prime minister Starmer would be, even three years into his tenure as party leader. He is an ambiguous figure: a onetime human rights lawyer who took a soft line on police brutality when he served as Britain’s top prosecutor and a former advocate of integration with Europe who now insists that Brexit was necessary.
The literature on Starmer remains relatively scarce. Before Johnson’s resignation as prime minister last year, Oliver Eagleton—an editor at the London-based New Left Review—published a profile of the Labour premier-in-waiting. The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right argues that Starmer aims to rid the Labour Party of any lingering leftist impulses seeded by his socialist predecessor Jeremy Corbyn and to resurrect the Blairite orthodoxy of the early 2000s. Eagleton’s book remains the most comprehensive account of Starmer (although Starmer himself has a forthcoming title laying out his vision for Britain)—an investigation of the Labour leader’s record that blends biography with political critique from a strongly left-wing perspective.
Starmer can’t match the ideological ambition of former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose sweeping public sector reforms and U.S.-aligned foreign policy made him the bête noire of the British left. But Eagleton writes that Starmer—like Blair—has managed to unite distinct factions in the party’s right wing. This gives him an advantage that Corbyn, widely blamed for Labour’s defeat in the 2019 U.K. general election, didn’t have: an internal coalition stable enough to guide the party back into power for the first time since 2010. The most pressing question now facing British politics is what Starmer would do with a governing mandate.
When Starmer became the leader of the Labour Party in April 2020, he promised to honor his predecessor’s policy platform. So-called Corbynism without Corbyn was a core part of his pitch, targeting the party’s weary left-wing base. Since then, Starmer has jettisoned much of Corbyn’s agenda—on immigration, social justice, and especially foreign affairs—and stacked Labour’s internal apparatus with centrists. Corbyn is gone, too; dogged by contested accusations of antisemitism, he sits in the House of Commons as an independent member of Parliament. The decision to suspend him from the Labour caucus in October 2020 came from Starmer’s office.
More than three years on, it’s clear that Corbyn will not be allowed back in. Starmer’s supporters argue that the current leader helped restore the Labour Party’s credibility. According to them, Starmer’s policy platform was designed to match the moderate priorities of British voters, with its emphasis on hard-line policing and reviving Britain’s beleaguered National Health Service. But to his detractors, Starmer is no more than a passive beneficiary of the protracted post-Brexit collapse of British conservatism—and a throwback to the obsolete days of Labour’s Blairite past.
Eagleton is one of those detractors, but The Starmer Project is still a work of investigative journalism that reveals Starmer’s willingness to abandon his positions and beliefs. Much of the book focuses on Starmer’s time as head of the Crown Prosecution Service between 2008 and 2013, when Eagleton writes that he shielded the London Metropolitan Police from allegations of violent misconduct. In 2011, when riots broke out across London after the death of a Black man, Mark Duggan, at the hands of the Met Police, Starmer sought rapid prosecutions for anyone looting or vandalizing private property.
This approach contrasts sharply with Starmer’s early radicalism. He was born in 1962 to a lower-middle-class, Labour-supporting family in Surrey, southwest of London. He studied law at Leeds University before completing a postgraduate degree in civil law at Oxford University. As a junior defense barrister in the 1990s, Starmer provided pro bono legal advice to progressive nongovernmental organizations and campaigned against the death penalty in Britain’s former colonies. For a time, he contributed to a leftist magazine, Socialist Alternatives, a pursuit that dovetailed with his burgeoning activism inside the Labour Party.
But in Eagleton’s telling, Starmer’s attachment to the British state deepened as he climbed the ranks of English law—his institutional drift evident from the cases he worked on and the relationships he cultivated. In 2000, Starmer helped clear the conviction of a British soldier who shot and killed an 18-year-old woman in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the early 1990s. As the director of public prosecutions, he established close ties to then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and declined to prosecute the MI5 agents involved in the arrest and rendition of a U.K. resident, Binyam Mohamed, from Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002. (Mohamed spent the following two years held without charge, before being transferred to the U.S. detention camp at Guantánamo Bay.)
Starmer leveraged his legal reputation to launch a political career. By the time he left the Crown Prosecution Service in 2013, he was a bona fide member of the British establishment, having completed “the journey from underdog defence lawyer to decorated Knight of the Realm,” Eagleton writes. In 2015, he was elected to the parliamentary seat of Holborn and St. Pancras in central London—traditionally safe for Labour. The party had just lost a general election to the Tories, and a coterie of centrist politicians and journalists soon encouraged Starmer to run for the party’s leadership. He argued that he didn’t have enough parliamentary experience. In a surprise victory for the Labour left, Corbyn became leader.
Corbyn quickly appointed Starmer as shadow minister for immigration and then, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, as shadow minister for exiting the European Union. Brexit was a strategic nightmare for the Labour Party: Despite its public support for the Remain campaign, more than 30 percent of Labour voters backed Leave in June 2016. Corbyn was a lukewarm Remainer who believed that the Labour Party needed to win back its lost Brexit voters. Meanwhile, Starmer was a mainstream anti-Brexiteer who used his influence as shadow Brexit secretary to press the case for another referendum aimed at reversing the Brexit result.
According to Eagleton, as Britain’s constitutional crisis intensified in 2017, Starmer began improvising his own version of the Labour Party’s EU withdrawal policy without authorization from Corbyn’s office. This included “shoehorning the words ‘regulatory alignment’ into [press] interviews … and asserting that Britain would stay in the EU indefinitely” in the absence of a satisfactory deal. Eventually, Starmer’s internal lobbying efforts succeeded in tipping the balance of opinion within Labour against Brexit. By 2019, Starmer and other members of the shadow cabinet, including some of Corbyn’s allies, were openly calling for a second referendum.
In this telling of events, Corbyn was thus forced to adopt an anti-Brexit position, which he believed would lose voters in the northern English heartlands. In December 2019, Johnson and the Tories, running on a simple pledge to “Get Brexit Done” against a very unpopular Corbyn, swept dozens of previously safe Labour seats, handing the party its worst defeat in 40 years. Four months later, Starmer secured the Labour leadership, defeating Corbyn’s anointed successor by a 28-point margin in the first round. Eagleton suggests, based on interviews with senior party sources, that Starmer saw Brexit as an opportunity to weaken Corbyn—but ultimately, his lobbying made it impossible for the Labour Party to craft its own Brexit narrative.
It is worth noting that Eagleton—writing from within the left wing—is not neutral in his assessment of these events, nor does he pretend to be. The book largely exculpates Corbyn for Labour’s disastrous 2019 showing, laying the blame for the defeat at the feet of not just Starmer but also Corbyn’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell—who, Eagleton writes, buckled in the face of centrist pressure. This leaves readers with an overgenerous impression of Corbyn’s political talents. Corbyn may have anticipated the crisis that Brexit would bring to Labour’s electoral base, but he was an unconvincing communicator who struggled to connect with voters. Even at the height of his popularity in 2017, he couldn’t lead the Labour Party into power.
Starmer’s record as Labour leader is checkered. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he preferred to back Johnson’s chaotic attempts at crisis management rather than disrupt them. The Labour Party slumped in the polls and lost its rock-solid seat of Hartlepool to the Tories during a May 2021 by-election—a result that almost brought a swift end to Starmer’s tenure. Not much is known about Starmer’s private life, and this inconspicuousness has caused problems: His approval ratings often lag behind those of the Labour Party as a whole. Writer Richard Seymour, a Corbynite, argues that voters see Starmer as a “blur.”
Eagleton has no doubts about the kind of prime minister Starmer will be: The Labour leader is an “Atlanticist,” he writes, who will combine “intervention abroad with repression at home” while engineering a return to Blairite neoliberalism. This isn’t an unreasonable characterization. Starmer—a lawyer-turned-politician like Blair—has moved Labour’s policies toward the right, following the Tories’ lead, even as the Conservative Party adopts even more radically far-right positions. Last year, he backed firmer sentences for disruptive eco-activists and urged British businesses to abandon their “dependency” on migrant labor. In January, he sat back as Westminster launched an unprecedented attack on Scotland’s devolutionary autonomy.
It may be more accurate to say that the only reliable lodestar of Starmer’s leadership so far is anti-Corbynism. Under Corbyn, the Labour Party deepened its links to the trade union movement, while Starmer has censured Labour politicians for supporting striking workers. Corbyn was open to a second Scottish independence referendum and a united Ireland, and Starmer has doubled down on the inviolability of the British state. These maneuvers can be read as signs of Starmer’s right-wing worldview or as confirmation of his belief that to revive the Labour Party, its members need to cut ties with Corbyn. Either way, the line between conviction and convenience in Starmer’s politics is hard to parse.
His most obvious U-turn relates to Brexit. Despite holding an apparently steadfast belief in the EU, Starmer has ruled out any possibility of Britain reentering the bloc under a future Labour government. Never mind that Starmer spent three years privately flaying Corbyn over his tepid opposition to Brexit. Today, Starmer stands remade as a de facto Brexiteer who refuses to countenance a soft compromise that would see Britain granted access to certain EU rights, including freedom of movement for U.K. citizens through Europe and vice versa.
On an individual level, the figure who emerges from Eagleton’s book remains curiously blank. Starmer started out as an ambitious lawyer and ended up an even more ruthless politician. But he has never coherently explained why he wants to become prime minister or what he will do with the job if he gets it. As a result, the Labour Party under Starmer’s leadership lacks a crucial spark of definition. One poll published last year showed that 4 in 10 Labour voters weren’t sure what he stood for. Liberated from internal party splits and buoyed by a decaying Conservative government, Starmer stands a strong chance of securing power next year. Only then will Britain confront the reality of Starmerism—whatever that turns out to be.