Keir Starmer: The Biography by Tom Baldwin review – steady as he goes

<span>Labour leader Keir Starmer on the beach at Worthing.</span><span>Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images</span>
Labour leader Keir Starmer on the beach at Worthing.Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Keir Starmer can be a hard man to read. Even now, focus groups complain that they’re not quite sure what he stands for – though he has come off the fence on enough divisive issues now, from Gaza to imposing VAT on private school fees, to give them a pretty clear idea. Still, some quality about him seems oddly elusive. The backstory we will all hear endlessly in the run-up to the election – that his father was a rather emotionally distant toolmaker with whom he had a difficult relationship, his mother a nurse who suffered terribly with a painful form of arthritis, and that they raised four children on a tight budget in a pebble-dashed semi – explains him to some extent. But he tells it still with a slight stiffness that leaves many wondering if there isn’t something more. A genuinely revealing account of the rather private man currently on course to lead the country feels badly overdue.

The former journalist turned spin doctor Tom Baldwin is at pains to insist this isn’t an authorised biography, but it doesn’t seem entirely unauthorised either. Baldwin was originally recruited to help the Labour leader with a memoir he had been persuaded to write in 2022, when still struggling to break through against Boris Johnson. A year later, riding much higher in the polls, Starmer backed out of a publishing deal about which he had always been ambivalent – but agreed to cooperate with the more conventional biography Baldwin proposed writing instead.

This book is the result, benefiting not only from access to Starmer’s friends, family, ex-girlfriends and wife Vic, but also close aides including his highly influential strategist, Morgan McSweeney. The author has been a fly on the wall at everything from shadow cabinet meetings to family breakfasts in Starmer’s kitchen. It is, in short, as intimate an insight into Britain’s likely next prime minister as readers are probably going to get, and crucial to understanding what makes him tick. But as Baldwin himself admits, anyone “hoping to find these pages spattered with blood” will be disappointed by an account that very precisely mirrors its subject: careful, nuanced, unlikely to set the world on fire, but eminently capable of doing the job it set out to do.

If Starmer’s ideological outline seems blurrier than that of most politicians that is, his biographer argues, because he’s not really a politician in the conventional sense. He came to Westminster late in life after a long legal career, and if it all went wrong could probably leave it all behind tomorrow to go and work in a bookshop. (He has, Baldwin reveals, already seriously considered resigning at least twice, firstly over antisemitism in Labour during the Corbyn years, and secondly after leading the party to a catastrophic defeat in the Hartlepool byelection).

He ran for leader on an avowedly leftwing platform before dumping it for a more centrist one, a move Baldwin portrays as less machiavellian than pragmatic: his Starmer is both reluctant to be aligned with any one Labour faction and curiously un-political, which can make him slow to understand why things that seem obvious to him aren’t connecting emotionally with others. There is an unworldliness about him, Baldwin writes, oddly reminiscent of Jeremy Corbyn – though in Starmer this comes tempered by a fiercely competitive desire to win, which means perhaps the better comparison is with Rishi Sunak.

What emerges from all this is a portrait of a leader willing to do whatever it takes, but still occasionally reliant on being told what that actually is by more acutely political advisers – with some of the most illuminating passages covering Starmer’s more recent political positioning and McSweeney’s role in the evolution of Labour strategy.

If there is some uncharacteristically juicy scandal lurking in Starmer’s past then this biographer hasn’t found it, unless you are shocked to learn that as a young lawyer sharing a cheap flat above what turned out to be a brothel he earnestly offered legal advice to some of the young women downstairs. Baldwin identifies no smoking gun in Starmer’s time as director of public prosecutions, either, concluding that far from failing to prosecute paedophiles, as some Tories have claimed, his record at the CPS was in fact one of diligently prosecuting sexual abuse cases previously treated as too difficult.

The fierce protectiveness Starmer seems to feel for his siblings feels key to both his character and politics

More surprising for some readers will be Baldwin’s take on tensions within the shadow cabinet. Rumours of a fractious relationship with deputy leader Angela Rayner, culminating in a botched attempt to reshuffle her? All better now, apparently. Widely reported frictions with shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband over green policies? Baldwin, who worked for Miliband when the latter was leader, describes a friendly, mutually supportive relationship. What about the time Starmer earned the adoration of Labour members, but the fury of his then boss Jeremy Corbyn’s office, by slipping an unauthorised line into his 2018 party conference speech as shadow Brexit secretary, saying nobody was ruling out campaigning for remain in a second Brexit referendum? Baldwin, who was working for the People’s Vote campaign at the time, reports Starmer insisting that he was innocently “trying to fix” a problem by sticking to the line agreed between the leader and pro-remain activists to avoid a public row over Brexit. If he genuinely thought that was going to calm everything down, he is at best guilty of being alarmingly naive.

Only rarely does the reader catch a glimpse of what feels like a more authentic frustration, as when Starmer describes himself listening intently to a parliamentary debate on Brexit only to glance over and see Corbyn engrossed in a week-old report of an obscure parliamentary debate “about cycleways or something”.

Perhaps the most illuminating part of the book for anyone still struggling to get a sense of Starmer personally covers his relationship with his younger brother Nick, who has had lifelong learning difficulties. The fierce protectiveness he appears to feel for his siblings, none of whom move in the same rarefied circles as their knight-of-the-realm brother, and some of whom have struggled financially, seems key to his character and politics – but key also perhaps to that feeling that he is always holding something back. Unlike his parents, they are still alive, vulnerable to intrusion.

As children, Nick’s siblings got into fights at school, protecting him from bullies. As an adult he has had what his politician brother calls a “really tough life” – one that defies glib slogans about social mobility and shattering glass ceilings, and perhaps taught the Labour leader something about what it means to be marginalised. Though Keir was always the golden boy, getting into grammar school and then university, he recalls his father telling him that he shouldn’t consider himself any more successful than Nick, who had more barriers to overcome. All this is a reminder, Baldwin suggests, that the kind of overly simplistic working-boy-made-good stories politicians are coached to tell about themselves on the campaign trail invariably hide complicated subplots, in this case about those who will always be vulnerable or left behind in the most upwardly mobile families. If Keir Starmer still seems frustratingly hard to pigeonhole, maybe that’s ultimately our problem, not his.

Keir Starmer: The Biography by Tom Baldwin is published by William Collins (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.