Red Knight by Michael Ashcroft; Biteback, 352pp, £20
THE ascent of John Major from junior health minister to 10 Downing Street was precipitous and caused a problem in the world of letters: he had seemingly risen without trace. People wanted to know: Who is John Major?
In 1990 the Press Association filled this gap, publishing a hardback biography. A cut-and-paste job, it consisted of news articles featuring Major that had been published over the years.
The rapid rise of Sir Keir Starmer from backbencher to Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition is similar to John Major’s. While Sir Keir was a public figure as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) before he became a politician, his status as a functionary precluded examination of his life as a matter of public interest.
Lord Ashcroft’s biography of Sir Keir is decidedly not of the cut-and-paste variety. It is a well-researched, fair and objective examination of a man who wants to lead his party into government. The biography is unauthorised: Sir Keir let it be known he did not approve of the exercise. This must have discouraged some in his past and present circles from sharing what they knew.
Sir Keir’s progress is honestly depicted. His father was not quite the factory worker on whom he trades. Rodney Starmer was eventually a self-employed specialist engineer manufactured custom tools to a high standard of precision, taking contracts from amongst others the Ministry of Defence despite his strong socialist leanings. Keir’s mother suffered for most of her life from a debilitating physical condition. She was fortunate enough to have the priority attention of a very senior medical professional at a major London hospital; she had four children under his expert care. The family lived in a well-appointed house on the Surrey/Kent border.
Young Keir was ambitious and aspirational (not traits normally associated with socialists). He passed his 11-plus and was a star pupil at grammar school, his socialist parents keeping him there when it moved out of the state sector to avoid becoming a comprehensive. He seemed not to know failure or inability in his youth and his early life was far removed from Labour’s traditional supporters.
While he was a convinced socialist from an early age, he was not quite committed until he reached his mid-twenties. He was a member of the Labour Party but he spent his time at Leeds University focusing on his law studies and not playing any significant role in either the Labour Club or the students’ union. It is therefore interesting that after a postgraduate stint at Oxford, and while a pupil in chambers, the post-adolescent Keir was a kind of Walter Burns-style figure on a short-lived Trotskyish magazine, Socialist Alternatives, at precisely the same time that the Militant newspaper, part of the Trotsky-based entryist tendency which had infiltrated Labour, was in its heyday, and John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn were lauding IRA murders in their London Labour Briefing.
The book describes the magazine as ‘unashamedly hard Left’ and describes its articles in interesting detail. The story of Starmer’s Damascene conversion to Marxism has yet to be written since some people from his life at this stage remained tight-lipped when asked to comment by Lord Ashcroft. What is clear is that in the 1980s it would have been difficult to insert a cigarette paper between Sir Keir’s beliefs and those of Jeremy Corbyn. While Corbyn has not changed in the slightest in the last four decades, Sir Keir has been less than open about his own ideological journey. His ambiguity about his background and beliefs during the 2020 leadership campaign secured him the votes of Corbyn supporters who now feel betrayed.
The book shows Sir Keir following the standard path of a socialist lawyer, being a criminal defence barrister for the legally aided and working pro bono in civil cases, most notably in the defence of two environmental extremists in the ‘McLibel’ trial. The passing of the Human Rights Act was a career boost, as was being a founder member of a progressive practice which moved out of the Inns of the Court to be a neighbour of Boris Johnson’s then place of work at the Spectator.
Lord Ashcroft surveys Sir Keir’s most memorable cases, and some that deserve to be better known in the context of his politics. It also explains why Sir Keir has floundered at the Despatch Box where other QCs such as Geoffrey Howe, Kenneth Clarke and Geoffrey Cox have sailed through. Sir Keir is a paperwork man, a burner of the midnight oil. He is one who formulates the arguments in grinding detail in leaden documents to be read and pronounced on by law officials, not one who uses the power of oratory to present a case. As Shadow Brexit Secretary he posed hundreds of questions on the Brexit process for the government to answer with the same assiduousness as when he tried and sometimes succeeded in getting convicted murderers in Commonwealth countries off Death Row. It might be cruel but accurate to describe him as a paperwork leader rather than a political personality.
Sir Keir comes across as an extremely, if not overly, cautious man, but not quite the prize ditherer that was Gordon Brown. This would explain why the Labour Party has not erupted into open civil war as he tries to detoxify the brand. Sir Keir seems to believe in staged and ordered confrontation, to grind away at his opponents rather than achieve sudden denouements. This behaviour reveals why his first major reshuffle was a disaster. It was forced upon him by the catastrophic of loss of Hartlepool and numerous local councils and could not be delayed for his usual analysis and consideration. Forced out of his comfort zone into precipitate action, Sir Keir botched the repositioning of his deputy and paid a heavy reputational price.
The inadequacy of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and his close team when facing a national issue is made quite clear. Sir Keir’s rapid rise was due to his high-profile appointment by Corbyn to be shadow Brexit secretary, a role in which he completely overshadowed Corbyn. While Corbyn and his office team appear to have been intensely relaxed about Theresa May’s Brexit deal, Sir Keir repeatedly outmanoeuvred them, coming up with a Brexit policy so absurd that it is hard to think other than this was just a ploy to have Labour lose a General Election so badly that his subsequent leadership bid would almost become the coronation it turned out to be.
A forgotten fact is that shortly after Sir Keir entered Parliament in 2015, several commentators suggested he was the man to replace Ed Miliband, and it seems he placed this under serious consideration. The book also suggests that his ambition to become Prime Minister may have been years in the making and that being DPP was a chosen stepping-stone to elected high office.
While the life of Boris Johnson has been in the public domain for three decades, the same cannot be said of his opponent. Lord Ashcroft’s book is a great aid to resetting the balance, answering questions, but also posing a few more. Its price once again demonstrates that the inflation rate for political biography has been zero per cent for the last three decades, and it is well worth your money and also your time.