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27 June 2024

Keir Starmer is the consummate late bloomer

His maturity is an antidote to the recent fashion for youthful politicians.

By Henry Oliver

Though not much of a radical, if Keir Starmer wins this election he will break with recent British political tradition: he is a candidate for change who isn’t young. In fact by modern standards he’s quite old. Tony Blair and David Cameron were just 43 when they won. At the time, Cameron was the youngest prime minister since 1812, before he was undertaken by Rishi Sunak, a mere 42 years old. Starmer will be 61 on polling day. The last time a prime minister took office in their sixties was James Callaghan in 1976; only Harold Macmillan and Winston Churchill were older in the 20th century. Starmer was elected to parliament late, too: he was 52 before he made it to the Commons, older than any other future prime minister when they first became an MP, according to one commentator.

If he makes it to the end of two full terms, Starmer will be over 70. Older than Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, Callaghan and many others at the end of their time in office. Only the unique Churchill exited at an older age (80). All this is already provoking whispers of trouble ahead. As the author Ian Leslie has written, stamina is a crucial part of the modern prime minister’s job, and age catches up with us all. Physical decline notwithstanding, the question of succession will certainly come up sooner than he would like.

But I see Starmer rather differently. Like Thatcher, ignored as a potential talent by her snobbish, sexist colleagues, or Andrew Bonar Law, who traded iron in Glasgow until he was 40 when he joined a very posh Tory party, Starmer is an unexpected presence in Labour’s senior ranks. A knighted barrister, not a special adviser or former councillor. And, unlike Thatcher and Law, Starmer was pushed to stand for leader long before he did so, in 2015. Rather sensibly, he declined, saying on Twitter: “V flattered by #keirforleader initiative and thanks for so many supportive messages but Labour needs s/one with more political experience.”

That might have been the best decision Starmer ever made. Though he lacked experience at that time, he now has nearly a decade under his belt, which has given him time to broaden and develop as a leader. Much is made of his insubstantial presence and his changes of heart, but let’s not forget that Thatcher was consistently doubted by her own cabinet well into her first term. Far from hobbling his government, I think Starmer’s professional and personal maturity could be his greatest asset.

His time in the shadow cabinet was intensive because of Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit. His careful, lawyerly manner served him well. But so did his ability to act swiftly, ruthlessly and with little mind to the petty concerns of political commentators. As Thatcher did in the crises she faced (such as student riots and the “milk snatcher” episode), Starmer has developed a thick skin and a determined cast of mind. He has acquired sophisticated political skills: though derided as both secretly left wing and a Blairite sell-out, he has perhaps “triangulated” more effectively than any politician since Blair.

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This coolness is also the product of experience. As Helen Lewis has pointed out, Starmer sat in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet through a dozen anti-Semitism controversies, even though he has a Jewish wife and children, allowing him to “present himself as enough of a loyalist to win the race to succeed Corbyn”. Starmer has subsequently tightly controlled the selection of candidates and ideological balance of the party. He really meant what he said in his party leadership victory speech about cleaning house when he pledged to tear out the poison of anti-Semitism by its roots. This quiet, mild, knighted lawyer emerged from the Corbyn years as a cold-hearted political operator.

This often happens to politicians who succeed later than their peers. No one expected Harry Truman to go anywhere, himself included. But the outbreak of the war gave him a chance to serve on the Senate committee that brought him to Franklin D Roosevelt’s attention, and his surprise appointment as vice-president. His time in the Senate gave Truman the decisive spirit he needed to govern. Similarly, Bonar Law became Tory leader despite his gross inexperience, because the party would split otherwise: he then learned leadership in perhaps the most tumultuous period of modern British political history. Thatcher got her break in the chaos of Ted Heath’s third election loss (of the four he contested) and the general chaos of the late 1970s.

All three of them developed in times of crisis and emerged stronger because of it. Like them, Starmer is a late bloomer.

Besides, 61 is nothing. Churchill was 65 when he took over in 1940 and that must have been the most physically gruelling premiership in history (other than Pitt the Younger, perhaps). The man barely paused for breath in five years. Nor was he the picture of health – he insisted on having a candle put next to him at dinner when he met Stalin so he would be able to light his cigars.

Starmer might be older than most recent prime ministers. But that doesn’t mean he won’t continue to surprise us with his reserves of capability. After all, that’s the story of his late blooming so far.

[See also: The New Statesman View: The Labour moment]

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