With Truss in turmoil, can Starmer seize the day?

The Labour leader is channelling Tony Blair in the hope of getting his party back into government

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer with his wife Victoria at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool. Getty
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In a week that Sir Keir Starmer moved in the public mind from being a leader of the political opposition to potential leader of the country, it was notable that the former barrister talked frequently about his fondness for returning home to spend time with his children.

The sense that Mr Starmer would give the country a calm and reassuring presence in No 10 Downing Street could be typified by the demeanour of his wife Victoria in the hours after he gave his keynote Labour Party address at its conference in Liverpool.

A former lawyer, who has been written up as his secret weapon, the auburn-haired mother of two cheered her husband on from the front row during his speech and rewarded him with a kiss after he had concluded. She cut an elegant figure in a red dress and a matching shade of lipstick, in keeping with Labour colours.

That evening, she was to be found on the West Coast main line, sitting quietly, having changed into jeans and trainers returning to their London home, watching downloaded shows on her iPad.

“I thought it was brilliant,” the lawyer-turned-occupational health worker told The National when asked about her husband’s speech and the week when the spotlight intensified on the couple. “I thought he was great.” Soon, like her husband, Victoria was making clear what her family priorities were, saying she had to rush off to care for her children.

A national crisis such as the collapse of the pound this month opens up an appetite among voters for a bold leader offering viable solutions to problems and a glimmer of hope, and Britain’s growing economic turmoil is no exception.

Step forward the Labour leader casting himself as the saviour of working-class people, the man of the moment who some regard as the only politician who can turn things around for the UK.

At the Labour Party conference in Liverpool this week, the halls were buzzing with talk of Mr Starmer’s transformation from a somewhat aloof figure to a commanding presence at the helm of the party. But critics also made their views known, with one even calling him a Tory in Labour clothing.

'Statesmanlike Starmer'

It has been clear for some time that Mr Starmer, 60, sees himself as a prime minister in waiting and this week, he missed no opportunity to push this narrative during his hour-long address to a packed auditorium. The phrase “hope into belief” was emblazoned on the screen behind him as he jumped on stage to a rapturous welcome. Mentioning the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II could be perceived as a bid to bring the centre of Labour back into the fold, after the faction was sidelined for years under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Several times, his supporters leapt to their feet to clap, shout and whistle in support, including when he said he had rooted out anti-Semitism from the party — a swipe at his predecessor Mr Corbyn. A pro-Palestinian stand pushing a boycott against Israeli goods was among the stalls at the conference, but the movement lacked the prominence it enjoyed during the Corbyn years.

Throughout his speech, the audience watched with laser focus as Mr Starmer announced a string of promises from the podium, from delivering a “fresh start” for the UK, leading the country “out of this endless cycle of crisis” and setting up a publicly owned green energy generation firm “within the first year of a Labour government”.

He also tried to reach out to red wall communities that backed the Conservative Party in the 2019 general election on Boris Johnson’s promise to get Brexit done. He urged people to retaliate against the Tories for their handling of the cost-of-living crisis and the mini-budget that has sent markets into a tailspin. “Don’t forget. Don’t forgive,” his voice boomed around the hall.

Standing tall on stage, Mr Starmer riled his audience with a promise to boost the National Health Service by creating thousands more placements to train future doctors and nurses. This was clearly done to strike a chord with voters in the room and those watching from home, as repeated polls show that the ailing NHS is among the top — if not the top — priority for Britons when deciding which party gets their vote.

“I think he was statesmanlike,” Labour MP Kim Leadbeater told The National after the address. “He was at his absolute best. He looks like a leader, he sounds like a leader.”

Ms Leadbeater, whose Labour MP sister, Jo Cox, was killed in a terrorist attack in 2016, said Mr Starmer’s clarion calls for change “put the icing on the cake” at the party’s annual gathering.

Alan Tate, who has voted Labour for 40 years, said he found Mr Starmer’s words “inspiring” and said he was pleased to see the campaign for renewable energy was finally catching on with the Labour leadership. “It’s growing in stature,” he said.

Anneliese Dodds, the party’s chairwoman, said his “message of hope that we can face up to the cost-of-living crisis” would appeal to people.

The opposition leader has in recent days capitalised on the Conservative government’s handling of the emergency in the hope that it will serve as a platform for him to be catapulted into No 10 Downing Street. While the next general election may not be until January 2025, an earlier ballot cannot be ruled out. Rocketing inflation, soaring gas and energy bills, a plummeting currency and the increasing threat of recession make for a hefty concoction of challenges facing the country.

Taking inspiration from Blair

Born in South London and raised in Surrey by Labour-voting parents, Mr Starmer’s background as a barrister and director of public prosecutions appears to be serving him well as leader of the opposition. His desire to paint himself as a Blair-like figure who can reunite the centrist factions of Labour with the left was evidenced in his speech, not least by his quoting of the former prime minister to describe the party as the “political wing of the British people”.

Andy Burnham, Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, said Mr Starmer was appealing to working-class Britons, including those in traditional Labour heartlands. “What people have been waiting for is that clear prospectus for the country and I think he set that out,” he told The National.

Asked if he believed Mr Starmer could pull off an election victory and fire Labour back into power, he said: “It’s very much odds on. It’s the first time in 12 years where truthfully I can say that. I think we could have a Labour government or a Labour-led government sooner than people might think. Last Friday will be the Tories’ black Friday and they’re on borrowed time.”

But trying to please everyone in the party is a difficult feat for any leader, especially for a man who lacks the public appeal — whether positive or negative — enjoyed by other politicians.

A taxi driver in Liverpool was all talk about Mr Johnson’s Covid-19 lockdown parties and subsequent cover-up, which he said meant he was “not into him any more”. But when it came to Mr Starmer, the local admitted he knew almost nothing about the Labour leader.

A protester outside the conference venue holding a sign that read "Starmer is a Tory" did not mince his words. “That leadership speech could easily have been one given at the Tory party conference,” he said, his voice seething with disdain. “What a joke that was.” Asked what he found most unappealing about the Labour leader, the critic, who declined to be named, said Mr Starmer’s insistence that “he can make Brexit work” for the British people was a major turn-off.

'He doesn't get enough credit'

Labour MP Jess Phillips, however, said Mr Starmer’s vision for Britain made her believe in a better future for the next generation.

“I’ve been an elected MP for seven years and I haven’t felt hopeful about a Labour government until this moment,” she told The National, and said Mr Starmer was due a lot of credit “that he doesn’t always get”.

“The idea that I just naturally think that my children won’t be able to afford a house and I’ve gotten used to that — he challenged that in me," she said.

Victoria Starmer cheers on her husband during his speech at the Labour party conference in Liverpool on Wednesday. AFP

Family first

The Starmers closely guard their teenage son Toby and younger daughter, whose name has never been made public, from the spotlight. The family live in a £1.75 million ($1.87m) town house in Kentish Town, in Mr Starmer's north London constituency of Holborn and St Pancras, and are raising their brood in their Jewish mother’s faith.

Mr Starmer said the births of his children were the most exciting things that had occurred in his life so far.

“It was absolutely incredible to see the two most wonderful beings come into the world,” he told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme on Wednesday. “It not only excited me when they were born but it’s excited me every single day since. If people think that’s boring I don’t care. For me that is crucially important, I love it.” He said that he was “very much looking forward to” reuniting with his son and daughter when the conference wrapped up.

Updated: September 30, 2022, 6:25 PM