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A profile of Keir Starmer, who is likely to be Britain's next prime minister

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

This Thursday, on America's Independence Day, Britain will elect a prime minister. The leading candidate is a human rights lawyer, a knight and possibly the inspiration for a brooding heartthrob in the Bridget Jones movies. NPR's Lauren Frayer has this profile, the man who is expected to win in a landslide.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: As a youngster, Keir Starmer got teased for his uncommon first name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The father of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Keir) The equal rights of all men and women...

FRAYER: Which was also the name of the 19th-century founder of the political party Starmer would grow up to run. Another early hurdle for Starmer was class. He grew up in an affluent, conservative suburb of London. But his family was blue-collar, says his biographer, Tom Baldwin.

TOM BALDWIN: His dad was a toolmaker who, probably, people didn't understand as being skilled and clever because they just saw him as working in a factory. And he always resented that. He felt them being snobbish towards him.

FRAYER: Baldwin says Starmer's dad withdrew and was sometimes surly. His mom, a nurse in the National Health Service - or NHS - was also chronically ill herself, in and out of the hospital, something Starmer often now says in speeches instilled in him the importance of free public health care.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEIR STARMER: The NHS that had been her livelihood became her lifeline.

FRAYER: Like his namesake, Starmer joined the young socialists. He became a human rights lawyer, fighting cases against big oil and against McDonald's. He was even rumored to have inspired the character of a fictional lawyer in the popular Bridget Jones books and movies...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY")

RENEE ZELLWEGER: (As Bridget) Maybe this was the mysterious Mr. Right I'd been waiting my whole life to meet.

FRAYER: ...Played by a taciturn Colin Firth. Starmer later switched sides, though, and became a prosecutor, something his biographer says annoyed some of Starmer's left-wing human rights colleagues. And when riots broke out in London in 2011...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The first flames in a night of many fires.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Some people went to jail for first offenses, for stealing, like, you know, some doughnuts. He didn't sentence them, but he was very keen that they got processed through the courts quickly.

FRAYER: In 2014, Starmer got a knighthood for his criminal justice work, becoming Sir Keir. And a year later, he won a seat in Parliament.

CAROLYN HARRIS: I was expecting someone slightly standoffish or very formal.

FRAYER: Carolyn Harris, a Labour MP from Wales, recalls meeting him that first day.

HARRIS: I actually poked him in the back and said, you are that Keir Starmer. And he said, yes, I am. And I said, I'm going to make you the leader of the Labour Party.

FRAYER: And what was his response? Was he like, yes, please? Or - (laughter).

HARRIS: He smiled and laughed. And he said, well, we need to have a cup of tea and talk about that then.

FRAYER: (Laughter).

Harris says she spotted in Starmer a pragmatist willing to do what it takes to get elected. He kicked his left-wing mentor out of the party and moved Labour to the center. When climate activists heckled Starmer this spring, here's how he responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STARMER: We gave up on being a party of protests five years ago. We want to be a party of power.

FRAYER: Starmer's lead in the polls, though, may be less about him, says Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, and more about voters' rejection of incumbent Conservatives - who've been in power for 14 years, through Brexit and Boris Johnson and a whole lot of tumult.

POLLY TOYNBEE: People are very, very angry about almost everything. I don't think I've been through an election that has quite that revenge feeling to it.

FRAYER: And so despite the fact that only four Labour leaders have ever won an election in more than a century, this election is Labour's to lose.

GABRIEL POGRUND: Labour, it needs to act as though it's holding this priceless piece of ceramic, an immaculate Ming vase, across a thin sheet of ice.

FRAYER: Gabriel Pogrund, a political journalist with the Sunday Times, says Starmer basically has to avoid giving anyone a reason not to vote for him.

POGRUND: He has adopted a cautious, risk-averse approach. He's decided to sandpaper down all of his fiscal commitments. He's said he will preserve the government's position on Ukraine and other foreign policy positions. The biggest change won't be in terms of the political economy of the country, the ideology of government, it will be in reestablishing competence.

FRAYER: Now, the first Keir, the one who founded the Labour Party back in 1900, he never actually won an election himself. But this Keir looks likely to do that with a pragmatic, centrist approach, and even his supporters say, maybe by just keeping his mouth shut.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.