Where is Keir Starmer’s book? The Labour leader said he would spell out his “vision for Britain” in print last spring, but it seems his allies were being optimistic when they told journalists the book would be out by the end of the year. Instead, Father Christmas filled the stockings of expectant hacks with biographies of Liz Truss. Here we are in the new year without so much as a title.
Labour insiders say Starmer is still scribbling away. Harper Collins, his publisher, insists the project is progressing though they won’t even give an estimate of the publication date. When I asked them when Starmer last met his editor, they would not comment.
Harper paid Starmer a considerable advance – £18,000, which he promptly donated to charity – but the clock is ticking down to the next general election. Prime ministers tend to place their obligations to publishers far down the to-do list. Hodder & Stoughton is still awaiting the Shakespeare book that Boris Johnson promised them in 2015.
What was the point of Starmer’s book? It was announced about a month after last year’s local elections, in which Labour clinched a mediocre win over Johnson’s doddering, scandal-hit Conservatives. The Labour leader, his advisers thought, needed to add some intellectual depth to his offer to the electorate. In short, the public needed to know what he stood for and a polemic-cum-autobiography was their chosen method.
Some might question the wisdom of that commitment. Starmer is a busy man. He is also untested as a writer beyond a long essay for the Fabian Society, some dry legal textbooks and an editorial role at a Trotskyist magazine in the 1980s.
Meanwhile his shadow cabinet colleagues race ahead. Lisa Nandy wrote a book on levelling up that was so compelling it drew her opposite number, Michael Gove, to the launch party at Hatchards. Nick Thomas-Symonds, with time on his hands after Starmer demoted him from shadow home secretary to the trade brief, wrote a well-reviewed biography of Harold Wilson. The ambitious shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, is working on a memoir of his humble childhood in the East End of London. One Boy, Two Bills and a Fry Up isn’t due out until August, but a draft has been submitted to the publisher and it has a cover image. Will it beat Starmer’s as-yet-untitled work to the bookshops? “Wes is a very busy politician, but not as busy as Keir Starmer,” comes the diplomatic reply from his office.
Starmer’s progress is uncertain. In May Harper Collins boasted he was at work on the first draft and that, from what they had seen, it was “fierce”. But those opening salvos were composed in the aftermath of the Downing Street parties scandal. Starmer was keen to make a point of “putting integrity back into public life”. Was it, then, to be a book largely defined against the incumbent prime minister and packed with quotable jibes about him for the benefit of reviewers?
With the political scene irrevocably changed, and the school prefect Rishi Sunak at the other dispatch box, Starmer has perhaps developed writer’s block. He is still obliged to satisfy the original pitch – setting out his “vision for Britain” and his principles – but his apparent reluctance to put anything down on paper is rational. Only this week we learned that his commitment in his leadership campaign to abolish Universal Credit was no commitment at all. His dead letter list of pledges from that election has caused him quite enough trouble, with cries of dishonesty from the left. It was only a page long. How will a whole book come back to haunt him?