Sir Keir Starmer was confirmed as Leader of the United Kingdom’s Labour party on 4th April. Just two days later, prime minister Boris Johnson was taken into intensive care in a London hospital with COVID-19, leaving foreign secretary Dominic Raab to deputise, and leaving Starmer seeking to balance the national interest and party politics in the most extraordinary circumstances.
Starmer has formed his first shadow cabinet in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, ousting several prominent left-wing MPs while also not divorcing himself entirely from socialist policies. Starmer’s has so far taken a balanced approach, offering support to the Conservatives over their advice to the public to ‘Stay Home – Stay Safe’ while still vowing to hold the government to account regarding failings in its handling of the crisis.
With 56.2% of the vote, Starmer comfortably won the contest and succeeds Jeremy Corbyn as the party’s leader, with a strong mandate from an electorate of almost 800,000 people, made up of members, affiliates (union members with the right to vote) and registered supporters. Labour is the largest political party in Europe, a status achieved when the movement behind Corbyn swelled the party’s ranks and swept the veteran socialist to victory in successive leadership contests in 2015 and 2016.
Rooted in left-wing politics from childhood, Starmer was named after Labour’s first leader, Keir Hardie and educated at Reigate Grammar School. Starmer’s career as a human rights barrister saw him rise to become Director of Public Prosecutions for the Crown Prosecution Service, from 2008. Elected as an MP in 2015, Starmer first served as Shadow Immigration Minister (2015-16) before Corbyn appointed him Shadow Brexit Secretary (2016-20) where he oversaw Labour’s push for a second European Union referendum.
Despite Starmer being pivotal in framing Labour party’s Brexit policy, as an outspoken remainer he was largely absent from the party’s 2019 general election campaign, which ended in an electoral collapse for Labour, largely due to Brexit-voting constituencies in Labour’s traditional heartlands voting for Boris Johnson’s Conservative party, many for the first time.
Despite some culpability in his party’s spectacular defeat, Starmer, now 57, is viewed by many as a safe pair of hands to lead Labour’s comeback and challenge the Conservatives. Before his election as leader was confirmed, there was some media speculation that Starmer could be invited to join a national government, similar to that joined by Clement Atlee and headed by Winston Churchill as German troops overran continental western Europe in 1940. Prime minister Johnson wrote to all party leaders on 4th April, urging them to set aside ideological differences and “work together” with his government in the national interest.
But a government of national unity seems less likely with the prime minister in intensive care, as the Conservatives will want to show that it is they, not Starmer, who led the UK out of the crisis. Inclusion in an emergency cabinet would see Starmer join Cabinet Office and prime minister’s office briefings. Corbyn said that to join a unity government would be “a negation of what our democratic society is about.”
For Starmer’s part, he has charted a middle path, not ruling out joining a hypothetical national unity government and resisting any temptation to go on the attack against the Conservatives’ Covid-19 strategy, probably because anger at the government’s handling of the crisis has not coalesced or manifested in public protest. However, in a video address to Labour members following his election victory, Starmer said he would “call out” any government failings as the crisis continues.
Flanking Starmer will be Angela Rayner, elected Labour’s deputy leader, also with over 50% of the vote. Rayner, who has recently suffered with COVID-19 symptoms and greeted her election victory via video in lockdown, has been outspoken about UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s decision to ignore World Health Organisation guidelines on self-isolating for a fortnight. Hancock suffered with coronavirus symptoms but opted to self-isolate for just seven days.
Like Starmer, Rayner has not come out strongly against the Conservative government’s handing of the crisis and has focused instead on the importance of British people taking steps to slow the spread of the virus through social distancing.
There remains plenty of scope for the newly aligned official opposition to criticise when they sense the timing is right. The high death toll, the low number of tests, insufficient bed numbers and a lack of protective equipment for health service staff are all well-known causes of public alarm. Labour has already called for the publication of a 2016 pandemic drill, codenamed Exercise Cygnus which assessed the country’s readiness for a crisis on the scale of COVID-19. The conclusions have, to date, been suppressed by the government, but the few published mentions of the drill suggest that the test exposed a country unprepared for a pandemic.
There is also the fact that Johnson, like Hancock, flouted government and WHO guidelines around COVID-19, proudly declaring in a press conference at the start of the crisis that he had visited a hospital and shaken hands with patients diagnosed with the virus.
Keir Starmer has a strong mandate and an array of options from which to choose how he presents his leadership credentials to the nation. He is most comfortable on his middle path, enabling him to pivot when he deems it necessary, seeking to strike a balance between displays of support for transcendent national unity and displays of his potency as the leader of the opposition.