Keir Starmer was once my apprentice – and this is how I think he might fare as prime minister

What does Keir Starmer actually stand for? Will our new prime minister turn out to be a socialist (as Tories claim), an authoritarian (as the left fears) or a closet liberal? His legal background may hold some clues.

After university he applied to join my chambers, 1 Dr Johnson’s Buildings, which was at the forefront of the civil liberties battles of the day. In many ways it was not an obvious choice for an aspiring Labour MP, headed by the Welsh Liberal QC MP Emlyn Hooson, who had defended the Moors murderers, and had among its members John “Rumpole” Mortimer, the liberal Tory Joe Walker-Smith, and myself, by then a veteran of anti-censorship cases such as Mary Whitehouse’s crusade against Gay News, and author of the cumbersomely titled textbook, Freedom, the Individual and the Law.

Keir interviewed badly, lacking both confidence and dress sense. (“How can we take a man who wears a cardigan?” expostulated one of my colleagues). But I needed a junior, and so we took Keir on. We look back at this as an example of why selections should not be made only on the basis of interviews.

‚Our work is urgent, we begin it today‘: Keir Starmer makes first speech as prime minister – video

I took him to Strasbourg for his first case in the European court. He forgot to bring his passport, and the gendarmes were about to put him on the next plane home until, with the help of the British consul, he was freed in time for his human rights debut. It was against Denmark, which had never lost a case before and was so confident of its success that it offered a free trip for its law students to hear it win again. The case was brought against its legal system, which allowed judges to refuse bail and then to go on, as trial judges, to convict the defendant. But, as the court ruled, they lacked impartiality and the country had to change its laws. It was Keir that day who gave a seminar to its law students and who would go on to write a textbook on European human rights law. A Starmer government will not repeal the Human Rights Act.

In 1990, Keir joined me in founding Doughty Street Chambers. He was never like the familiar English “QC MP” – all red face and rhetoric fashioned for tub-thumping in front of Old Bailey juries. His style was developed in appellate and administrative law courts, usually in cases against the government, where he would write erudite but precise submissions and speak them softly but persuasively – often bringing judges to conclusions that they could not have predicted when they first opened the case papers.

Keir had one talent that most barristers lacked, namely an ability to manage finances – and he joined me for several years as co-head of a chambers that aimed to do half its work at commercial rates and the other half on legal aid (which, of course, pays far less) and otherwise free of charge. His approach in meetings would be low-key, inviting contributions from stakeholders (he was a very good listener) and then finding a compromise that may have suited few but which alienated none. An example, when he was director of public prosecutions, was the vexed question of the law against euthanasia, which a pole-axed parliament left on his lap. After careful consideration, he issued “guidelines” for prosecutors which mitigated some of the cruelty of the common law.

In their first TV debate Sunak attacked Starmer for defending terrorists, which of course he did, but pursuant to his duty as a barrister to abide by the “cab-rank rule” and take on anyone who wanted to hire him. The rule ensures that no defendant, however demonised by the media, can be left without an advocate and Starmer, as a leading practitioner in the field, had no choice but to accept these briefs. Had he rejected this work for reasons of its political unpalatability, he would have been thrown out of chambers.

He did not need the comfort of the cab-rank rule to join me as a junior in an important case, when the privy council ruled that time on death row was a form of torture that would require commutation of death sentences in several Commonwealth countries. He also joined me in arguing the case for Rusbridger and Toynbee v the Attorney General, when we tried to strike down an old law that made it treason to advocate republicanism. The law lords turned us down but did make it clear that, thanks to the Human Rights Act, Guardian journalists had no cause to fear their collars would be felt by Scotland Yard’s treason squad.

But his subsequent stint as DPP saw criticism: his over-heavy reaction and overcharging of young people involved in the 2011 riots caused some concern from inside and outside his office. He set up 24-hour courts, where one youngster was infamously sentenced to 16 months in prison for stealing two scoops of ice-cream. He also refused to prosecute the British officials complicit in the appalling torture and rendition of Binyam Mohamed.

Since his election as leader, he’s shown no sign of the socialism he espoused in his leadership campaign, and he made a pig’s ear of answering questions about wanting Jeremy Corbyn to become prime minister in the 2017 and 2019 general elections. Denying that he wanted his leader to become prime minister and criticising the manifesto he previously said would be the “foundational document” for his own leadership made him sound duplicitous.

Many have criticised an authoritarian streak that has come out in factional attacks on the left in the Labour party which have been overzealous (some say Stalinist). And he has dismayed many by his initial reluctance to criticise Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of Gaza and the cutting off of water and food for a desperate population. He has not, however, criticised the ICC prosecutor for seeking an arrest warrant against Benjamin Netanyahu for these crimes.

Keir doesn’t have the charisma of Tony Blair or Boris Johnson – but he does have some of the workaholism of Harold Wilson and the intense seriousness of Clement Attlee. His earlier career offers a clue to a few other qualities associated with that great liberal reformer, William Gladstone, which should worry the Tories – Gladstone, after all, won office four times and held it for 12 years. But for now, Starmer is offering no great reform, and unchecked power can breed complacency. Perhaps progressive MPs (Jeremy Corbyn, for instance) can put pressure on in Labour for greater reform.

My hope is that Keir remembers the values he once espoused when he told me it was human rights principles that drew him into politics because he believes them “capable of contributing to the realisation of political change”. If he forgets, there will be no shortage of barristers from Doughty Street to challenge his government’s decisions.

Title: Keir Starmer was once my apprentice – and this is how I think he might fare as prime minister
Source: the Guardian
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Date: July 7, 2024 at 05:46PM
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