Keir Starmer is on the brink of power in the UK

Keir Starmer, leader of the British Labour Party, nodded sympathetically as a young mother recalled, in heartbreaking terms, watching CCTV footage of the fatal stabbing of her 21-year-old son, whose heart had been pierced by a single bullet.

“Thank you for this,” a grim Mr Starmer told the woman and other relatives of knife victims as they stood around a wooden table last week discussing how to tackle violent crime. “It’s really, really powerful.”

It wasn’t the most edifying campaign event for a candidate, the week before an election his opposition party is widely expected to win. But it was entirely in keeping with the character of Mr Starmer, a 61-year-old former human rights lawyer who still acts more like a prosecutor than a politician pursuing a case.

Sincere, intense, practical and not brimming with charisma, Mr Starmer finds himself on the brink of a potential landslide victory without the star power that has characterised previous British leaders on the threshold of power, whether Margaret Thatcher, the free-market champion of the 1980s, or Tony Blair, the embodiment of “Cool Britannia”.

And yet Mr Starmer has achieved an arguably comparable political feat: less than a decade after entering Parliament, and less than five years after his party suffered its worst electoral defeat since the 1930s, he has transformed Labour with ruthless efficiency into an electable party, dragging it to the centre on key policies while capitalising on the failures of three Conservative prime ministers.

“Don’t forget what they did,” Mr Starmer told a rally in London on Saturday, walking on stage in a pressed white shirt with his sleeves rolled up. “Don’t forget partygate, don’t forget the Covid deal, don’t forget the lies, don’t forget the bribes.”

As he listed this parade of Conservative scandals and crises, he brought the crowd of 350 to its feet. But it was a rare moment of fire, one that captures the enigma of Mr Starmer.

Polls predicting his party will win a landslide majority in Parliament on Thursday also suggest he is not popular with British voters. They struggle to like a man who seems less at home in the political arena than in the courtroom where he once excelled.

“He doesn’t deal with the performative side of politics,” said Tom Baldwin, a former Labour Party adviser who has published a biography of Mr. Starmer. While other politicians aspire to grand rhetoric, Mr. Starmer talks seriously about practical problem-solving and how to build each other’s bricks.

“Nobody’s going to watch it,” Mr. Baldwin said. “It’s boring. But at the end, you might find out he built a house.”

Jill Rutter, a former senior civil servant and researcher at the London-based think tank UK in a Changing Europe, said: “He has been ferociously, some would say tediously boring, in his discipline. He won’t make any hearts beat, but he looks relatively prime ministerial.”

Raised in a working-class family in Surrey, outside London, Mr Starmer did not have an easy childhood. His relationship with his father, a toolmaker, was distant. His mother, a nurse, suffered from a debilitating illness that kept her in and out of hospital. Mr Starmer became the first in his family to graduate, studying first at Leeds University and then law at Oxford.

His was a left-wing family. Mr Starmer was named after Keir Hardie, the Scottish trade unionist and first leader of the Labour Party. He later recalled wishing as a teenager to be called Dave or Pete.

As a young lawyer, Mr Starmer represented protesters accused of libel by the fast-food chain McDonald's, rose to become Britain's chief prosecutor and was awarded a knighthood. Even then, he used his legal brains to persuade judges rather than courtroom theatrics to sway juries, a corny reputation that followed him into politics.

Boris Johnson, the former prime minister, who debated him in Parliament, once called him “Captain Crasheroonie Snoozefest”.

Mr Starmer may not have his rival’s cheeky one-liners, but he has brought his forensic skills to bear on the scandal-scarred Mr Johnson, helping to expose his falsehoods about Downing Street parties held during the Covid lockdown.

When Conservatives asked whether Mr Starmer had also broken lockdown rules by drinking beer and dining with colleagues at an Indian takeaway in April 2021, he vowed to step aside if police found he was wrong. He was cleared, an episode that allies said showcased his strict adherence to the rules and offered a stark contrast to Conservative Party leaders.

But Mr Starmer’s political compromises have raised questions about his approach. He served the left-wing former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, taking charge of Brexit policy at a time when many of the party’s moderates refused to join his team.

When Corbyn resigned after his 2019 defeat, Starmer positioned himself as his successor, winning on a platform that included enough of Corbyn's policies to appease the party's then-powerful left wing.

Once elected, however, Mr Starmer took control of the party machinery and made a remarkable turn toward the political centre. He abandoned Mr Corbyn's proposal to nationalise Britain's energy industry, promised not to raise taxes on working families and pledged to support the British military, hoping to banish an unpatriotic label that had clung to Labour during the Corbyn era.

Mr Starmer has also stamped out the anti-Semitism that had tainted the party ranks under Mr Corbyn. Although he has not drawn a link between this and his personal life, his wife, Victoria Starmer, comes from a Jewish family in London.

Mrs Starmer, who works as an occupational health specialist for the National Health Service, is an occasional presence on the campaign trail. The couple have two teenage children, whose privacy is fiercely guarded. In keeping with his wife’s heritage, the family sometimes observes Jewish traditions at home.

In Mr Corbyn’s exile, Mr Starmer has shown a ruthless side. He has even blocked Mr Corbyn from running for his seat as a Labour candidate, even though he is campaigning as an independent. Mr Starmer’s aides have carefully vetted the list of those allowed to stand for Parliament, eliminating other candidates deemed too left-wing.

Mr Starmer’s allies say he is aware of his limitations and working hard to address his weaknesses. Although not a natural orator, his speeches have improved since his early days in Parliament, when one critic compared his delivery to “watching an audience at a literary festival listen to a reading of TS Eliot”.

And yet the reputation for boredom persists.

“How does Keir Starmer energise a room?” Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, asked recently, before delivering her final line: “He leaves it.”

Criticism grates. “He doesn’t like being labeled boring,” Mr. Baldwin said. “Nobody likes being called boring; he just doesn’t like it.”

Mr Starmer's friends describe him as a man with a sense of humour, a healthy family life and genuine passions outside of politics. Despite knee surgery, he still plays football regularly and competitively (often reserving pitches and selecting teams). He is a keen supporter of Arsenal, the football club that plays not far from his home in north London.

In some ways, Mr Starmer has been helped by his relatively recent arrival in Parliament. He has not been embroiled in the internecine feuds of previous Labour governments or tainted by alliances with former leaders such as Gordon Brown and Mr Blair, although he and Mr Starmer now have a growing relationship.

There are downsides, too. There are relatively few Starmer loyalists willing to fight in the trenches with him. The same lack of passion extends to many voters. They may find Labour less objectionable than it was under Mr Corbyn, but that doesn’t mean they are casting their vote with enthusiasm.

“Keir Starmer’s aim was to stop giving people reasons to vote against Labour, and he’s been very good at that,” said Steven Fielding, emeritus professor of political history at the University of Nottingham in England. “He’s been less good at giving people reasons to vote for Labour.”

The same sense of incompleteness weighs on those who admire Mr Starmer. Despite the many hours Mr Baldwin spent with him researching his biography, he said there was “something slightly unapproachable” about the Labour leader. “He’s a very attached person who doesn’t trust easily,” Mr Baldwin said. “He’s not emotionally diarrhetic.”

As Mr Starmer has begun to talk more about his personal history, his frequent references to being “a toolmaker’s son” who grew up in a “shingled semi-detached house” – his modest family home – can seem superficial, even robotic.

“He doesn’t understand why he has to expose himself and all his inner workings to the public,” said Mr. Baldwin, who said he sometimes struggled to get more than monosyllabic answers from Mr. Starmer to personal questions. Once, he recalled asking him to elaborate on his feelings about an incident that had distressed him.

The response was terse, direct and unhelpful. “I was,” Mr Starmer said, according to his biographer, “very upset.”

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