It’s one of history’s greatest illustrations of ingratitude. In July 1945, fresh from his near-superhuman triumph in World War II, Winston Churchill led Britain’s Conservative party to one of its worst ever defeats. Voters decided that a wartime prime minister was no longer needed, thanks, and they tossed him aside for a man they believed would do a better job of rebuilding a country that had been left smouldering from Nazi bombs and with an almost unfathomable amount of debt owed to the United States.
Seven and a half decades on, Churchill’s proudest fanboy is prime minister and finds himself in his hero’s shoes—leading the country through a crisis so terrifying and so all-consuming its only real comparison is that war. Who knows what fresh hell the next months will bring, but right now Boris Johnson’s popularity is surging as he drags Britain through the coronavirus pandemic after having already delivered on his promise to “Get Brexit Done.” Johnson has been handed the kind of historic crisis he’s spent his lifetime studying but, fancying himself as something of a Churchill scholar, he’ll know that steering a nation through its darkest hour comes with no guarantee of gratitude when voters return to the ballot box.
The next U.K. election, scheduled quite unthinkably far in the future in 2024, started to take shape Saturday morning when the opposition Labour party named former top prosecutor Sir Keir Starmer as its new leader. Like in 1945, when Labour’s since-deified leader Clement Attlee pushed Churchill out of Downing Street, Starmer will be tasked with defeating a virtual wartime PM by persuading the country that he’s more able to pick up the pieces of a country ravaged by death and debt than the man who made the big calls during the crisis.
Starmer’s résumé is probably as stacked as it can be for a man who’s spent his relatively short political career in a party which has now been wading through the thick misery of opposition for a decade. Before entering parliament in 2015, he was a high-profile human rights lawyer who battled against the death penalty in the Caribbean and Africa and was part of a legal team which took on McDonald’s in a notorious libel case brought by the fast food company against two environmental activists who handed out a factsheet accusing it of electrocuting animals and destroying forests.
Later, in 2008, he became the British Establishment’s most senior prosecutor when he was named head of the Crown Prosecution Service and Director of Public Prosecutions. During that time, he brought the prosecution of two men for the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence—a watershed case which exposed widespread institutional racism in the police force. In 2014, he was knighted by the Queen.
(As a side note, during this part of his career, he was widely rumored to have been the real-life inspiration for the character of Mark Darcy—the handsome human rights barrister in the original Bridget Jones’s Diary novel who was later played by Colin Firth in the movies. Author Helen Fielding has reportedly denied that origin story, but it hasn’t stopped Starmer from grinning in a particularly handsome manner when questioned about it on the campaign trail.)
But, in 2015, he made the still quite mystifying decision to give up his legal perch to become a politician. Shortly after he won a seat in parliament that year, the veteran far-left campaigner Jeremy Corbyn was unexpectedly voted in as Labour leader and went on to drive the party through what were arguably the five most pointless years of its existence, which finally ended Saturday. Although Corbyn still has a lot of support among the tenaciously left-wing party membership—many of whom signed up specifically to vote Corbyn into his position—it was impossible for him to go on after the December election saw Labour suffer its worst defeat since the 1930s.
Because Starmer’s five years in parliament have been spent while his party wasn’t particularly important to what was going on there, it’s hard to know exactly what kind of prime minister he’d be. He’s mostly known to the public for his time as shadow Brexit secretary, when his role was to scrutinize what his opposite member in government was doing as Britain readied to leave the European Union. As that disastrous process lurched from one catastrophe to the next, Starmer was identified as one of the few members of the Labour shadow cabinet who was actually quite good at using his legally trained brain to dismantle the government’s frippery.
It seems a long time ago that anything but the coronavirus pandemic mattered, but Brexit and Britain’s relationship with Europe will become important again in healthier times. Starmer campaigned to remain in the EU ahead of the referendum in 2016, so Britain’s relationship with Europe will be interesting to watch if he becomes prime minister. Before the December election, Starmer talked about his hope of holding another E.U. referendum and made clear that, if it happened, he’d campaign to stay. He was key to Labour's change in position ahead of that election when it promised a second referendum if Corbyn became prime minister.
However, most voters absolutely hated that idea and clearly preferred the blunt simplicity of Johnson’s message to “Get Brexit Done.” Some Corbyn supporters blamed Starmer for the party’s huge defeat, accusing him of creating a policy which was so convoluted and vague that both Leave voters and Remain voters—or, in other words, the entire electorate—despised it. Despite that, under recent questioning from reporters during the leadership campaign, Starmer seemed quite open to the idea of rejoining the E.U. at some point in the future.
Europe aside, and accepting his stated beliefs in fighting against “poverty, inequality and injustice” as laudable but obvious for a lifelong human rights activist, it’s been hard to nail down exactly what Starmer believes or what he intends to do with his time as leader. It has been reported that, when he was much younger, Starmer was a proud Marxist. A journal he helped set up in the mid-1980s attacked the Labour party for not being sufficiently radical, railed against “the authoritarian onslaught of Thatcherism,” and urged workers to take nationwide direct action in a campaign to reduce the number of working hours in a week to 32.
But his subsequent career inside the belly of the Establishment appears to have softened some of the hard lines of his beliefs as a young man. The 10 campaign pledges posted on his leadership campaign website could largely have been written by any vaguely leftish leader over the past few decades, including the one he just replaced after a dreadful election defeat, so his appointment isn’t going to immediately herald radically different policies from before.
Instead, Starmer has run a wise but boring balancing act. Even before the coronavirus pandemic pushed the leadership contest out of news bulletins, he ran a bland campaign designed to avoid trashing the former leader and upsetting the Corbyn supporters who made up a huge part of the electorate in the party leadership vote.
In simply not being Corbyn, there is at least some hope he can win over voters who are naturally inclined to vote for leftish policies, but who hate Corbyn so much that they couldn’t bring themselves to do it in December. On top of Corbyn’s shiftiness on Brexit, his historic links to terror groups and failure to squash an anti-Semitism problem among his left-wing supporters made him too toxic to too many people.
Far from abandoning Corbyn’s losing manifesto, it looks like Starmer will actually keep the vast majority of it and hope it sounds better coming from him. He will certainly start with more goodwill—Corbyn’s reputation was absolutely savaged by British newspapers which gleefully exposed the murkier associations from his past the instant he became leader. Starmer, who came from a fairly humble background to become a leading human rights lawyer and a goddamn actual knight, and has only been mudlarking in the swamps of politics for a few years, appears to have far less fodder for the British press to get too excited about.
So here he is: a handsome but quite dull man who has already proven he has the ability to excel and has spent his entire career standing up against real social injustices. If he largely sticks by the Corbyn manifesto, then Britain could have a credible potential leader with very little baggage who puts forward genuinely radical policies. In December’s vote, Labour proposed nationalizing huge sections of British industry such as rail, energy, and broadband, fighting the climate crisis with a Green New Deal, and slapping big tax rises on the wealthiest.
When Attlee defeated Churchill and inherited a devastated country in 1945, he went on to preside over what became the most significant reforming government of the 20th century. It’s remembered for introducing the now-more-hallowed-than-ever universal health-care system the National Health Service, nationalizing vast swaths of industry, and granting independence to India which marked the beginning of the end of the anachronistic British Empire.
In just over four years—after Britain has, with any hope, long seen off the coronavirus pandemic—the U.K. will hold another election, scheduled for May 2, 2024. Unless the current crisis sees Johnson make some kind of outrageous and colossal fuck-up—which, admittedly, is not impossible—he is likely to be riding a wave of goodwill during his re-election campaign, just as Churchill did in his campaign ahead of his historic shitcanning.
If Starmer is to make history repeat itself and do an Attlee, it’s now his job to spend the next four and a bit years proving to Britain that, when it finally wakes up from this nightmare, he’s the right man to help it heal and move on.