Stunned silence, hugs and a very big kiss: at home with the Starmers on election night

For a couple of minutes after the exit poll on Thursday night, nobody said a thing. About a dozen of Keir Starmer’s closest and longest-serving aides assembled at the back of the living room, turned and hugged each other. Some sobbed as aching exhaustion mixed with relief and joy.

Even more powerful feelings were on display in front of them. Starmer and his wife, Vic, along with their two teenage children, were lined up on the sofa watching the television almost like they were recreating the opening of the cartoon series The Simpsons. They tried to show they were relaxed in this upmarket house Starmer had borrowed from a friend. Their son wore his Arsenal shirt and their daughter, who has told him she has no intention of moving to Downing Street, gave everyone an excuse to laugh for a moment by letting out a long “Ewww” when her dad’s face appeared on the screen.

At 9.59pm, the countdown began. Starmer and his wife locked their bodies together. Vic’s left arm stretched around his shoulders to clasp his left hand, while he did the same to reach for her right. “As Big Ben strikes 10, the exit poll is predicting a Labour landslide,” intoned the BBC. “Keir Starmer will become prime minister with a majority of around 170 seats.”

The man they were talking about wrapped both his arms around his wife to share an extravagant kiss. Then he reached out for his 13-year-old daughter. They embraced for a moment but he jolted into a tighter, protective grip as he realised it was all becoming too much. I looked away and stared at the TV as it chattered on. The room suddenly felt hot and, not for the first time since I began writing Starmer’s biography two years ago, I knew this was intruding on something very personal.

There are dozens of interviews and profiles where he has described “sleepless nights” worrying about the impact becoming prime minister will have on his children. Maybe it’s just the sort of thing you might expect a politician to say. But even the hardest cynic would soften if they could have watched him on the sofa with his family as they got the news their lives were about to change for ever.

I found myself wondering once again why this self-contained and rather private man would choose to put himself through all this. It’s not like the job he has fought so hard to get is one guaranteed to bring much happiness. There’s a terrible economic inheritance waiting for him, along with crumbling public services and darkening international skies, while even sympathetic commentators predict he will be deeply unpopular within a year.

Nor is he one of those who declared as a child he wanted to be “world king” or pretended he was standing outside Downing Street while he practised a speech in front of a mirror as a teenager. Instead, he is someone who came into politics late, who eschews the idea of “Starmerism” – or any other “ism” – and insists all he wants is to “get stuff done”.

Back in the room on Thursday night, it fell to Matthew Doyle, his communications chief, to break the silence by saying: “Well, we won.” The mood lightened. Starmer went around for a few minutes, sharing embraces and muttered words.

Some of those present headed to the buffet table to try the food and cheese laid out for them but which they hadn’t really felt like eating before. Nobody was drinking alcohol. Vic was talking on the phone. “Dad,” she said, “just put the telly on. They’ve done the exit poll …. No! I’m not joking! It’s out already … yes, we’ve won!”

Then the internet went down. There was no wifi, no TV and the prime minister-elect was cut off from the outside world. “That’s a bit frustrating,” he said with characteristic understatement.

The soon-to-be prime minister gives a speech in Camden, watched by fellow parliamentary candidates Nick ‘The Flying Brick’ Delves and Bobby ‘Elmo’ Smith. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

When he went upstairs to see if could get a signal. Sue Gray, the chief-of-staff recruited last year from the civil service, shouted up to him that security would take his phone off him when he got to No 10.

“No, they won’t!” came the reply from the top of the stairs (and when I checked on Saturday lunchtime, the prime minister still had it).

Below stairs, his team were cracking jokes about their communications breakdown. “It’s quite peaceful like this,” said one. “Maybe we could just stay down here, then come out in four years’ time to see how it all went,” remarked another.

But no one was stopping there for long. Gray wanted to get to south London where votes that would make her son a Labour MP were being counted. Others prepared to head to Starmer’s own count in Camden. Still more were anxious to do some work at the party’s HQ. Starmer had a couple of hours before he had to leave. “Are you going to grab some sleep?” I asked him as I left.

“No,” he said, tilting his head and smiling in acknowledgment that he probably should. “No, I won’t.”

The quiet intensity of his celebrations on Thursday night was a contrast to the exuberance of the last day of campaigning. On Wednesday, he used “planes, trains and automobiles” to travel across the three nations of Wales, Scotland and England. His speaking style, often criticised as wooden, has improved and he can lift crowds with an urgency and passion that’s not always been apparent.

Even so, away from the cameras, my abiding image of the Labour leader was of him sitting quietly alone at the front of the plane in deep contemplation, a hand covering one side of his face so he could ignore the air stewardesses who kept sneaking a look at him from round the corner. Advisers said he had become more like this in the final days as he began making the mental transition from opposition to government.

There was a similar poignancy at the end of a six-week tour that had, according to a helpful briefing note, covered 8,204 miles, “which equates to 38,000 laps of the pitch at Wembley”. On the last journey back to London, Starmer walked down the train carriage, quietly thanking each member of this close-knit team, including his police protection officers, for what they had done. Once again, sitting there listening in, it felt like I was intruding on a private moment for another kind of family.

Indeed, in the last two days of the election campaign, the parents of team members began turning up at his rallies. On Tuesday in Cannock Chase, he heard that Leeann, the mother of his private secretary, Prentice Hazell, was in the audience, so he sought her out afterwards for a chat. On Wednesday in Carmarthen, it was the turn of Suzy and Guy Pullen to meet the future prime minister. Their son, Tom, who has been Starmer’s official photographer for the past four years, said afterwards: “You ask your parents to come to something if you’re proud of what you’re doing. I guess they turn up if they’re proud of it too.”

Later that day, the mother of Jill Cuthbertson, the Labour leader’s office director, was at the Caledonia Gladiators basketball court to see him deliver his final campaign speech in Scotland. Typically, she had brought a clean dress for her daughter because she thought “Jill might need it in the next day or two”.

The younger Cuthbertson has emerged as a formidable figure after a campaign where she has been widely credited with avoiding any of the mistakes that seemed to befall Rishi Sunak on an almost daily basis. A sense of this organisation involved could be found in the “op-note” prepared each day, which sets out, minute-by-minute, operational logistics. The one for Wednesday ran to 15 pages.

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Another indication of Labour’s nothing-left-to-chance attitude was the babies waiting at the basketball court at the end of his rally that day. Some Labour supporters there wanted to get a picture of Starmer with their newborn children, not least because politicians kissing them is a well-worn campaign tradition. But party aides decided it was too high-risk to be done in front of media, so only when the press had been cleared from the room did the Labour leader wander over to meet them.

As soon as he picked up one of them, a baby girl, there were familiar gurgling noises and she began to be sick on him. “Ah, what are you doing here?” said Starmer, smiling. “I might need to give you back to your mum.” Some wet wipes were produced to clean his shirt as Anas Sarwar, Labour’s ebullient Scottish leader, said: “When she grows up, she’ll be able to say she puked on a prime minister.”

Keir and Victoria Starmer enter 10 Downing Street. The new prime minister faces the personal upheaval of moving his family to the corridors of power. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

There was no “puking”, at least not alcohol-induced, at the Tate Modern gallery, where Labour held its victory party in the small hours of Friday. Guests were presented with a single pink ticket declaring “one drink”. The woman at the door, said: “It was going to be five but that’s all you’re getting. A decision was taken from on high.”

Starmer himself delivered a similarly sober message when he spoke at 5am to the party. Although he talked of “the sunlight of hope, pale at first but getting stronger through the day, shining once again”, the rain that had fallen heavily on London from Friday was not far away. He talked of the need for “hard work, patient work, determined work”, when the going gets tough, adding: “The fight for trust is the battle that defines our age.”

When he arrived at Downing Street on Friday lunchtime, his convoy delayed until a break in the weather because aides wanted to avoid any repetition of Sunak’s soaking at the start of the election, Starmer promised a “government unburdened by doctrine”, which would “restore service and respect to politics, end the era of noisy performance, tread more lightly on your lives and unite our country”.

Such language reflects his unease at an election result that, though delivering a vast majority for Labour, has suggested new fissures opening up in Britain. Not only has the far-right Reform party been given a foothold in parliament for the first time, but the success of independent pro-Palestine candidates and the Greens suggests a changing battlefield on which the Labour government will have to face attacks across several fronts in the years to come.

His campaign team, led by Morgan McSweeney, is already studying the difficulties faced by other centre and centre-left leaders in the face of the populist right. These include the Joe Biden US administration’s early decision to reverse most Trump-era policies on immigration. They believe Olaf Scholz’s government in Germany opened up territory for the far right to attack “eco-dictatorship” with some of its net zero policies, and in Britain such measures should instead be presented as building “energy security”.

Papers with unedifying titles such as “The Death of Deliverism” have been circulated, suggesting big investment projects will do little to stop populists “surfing a wave of unhappiness” unless the everyday crisis in living standards and issues such as potholes or sewage-infested rivers are addressed swiftly.

There are hints, too, that even with his vast parliamentary majority, Starmer may have to consider a closer working or even electoral relationship with other centrist parties such as the Liberal Democrats if he is to build a stable coalition from a volatile electorate.

The problems are mounting up already at home and abroad. He must also come to terms with the personal upheaval of moving his family into the goldfish bowl of Downing Street, where it may be impossible to protect his children’s privacy.

But perhaps he can learn from them. When his son recently finished his GCSEs, he immediately put all his revision notes, books and school uniform into a box for chucking out. The prime minister tells this story with the kind of laugh in his voice that sounds like pride.

Like his son, he knows he will need to dispose of what’s no longer needed without too much sentiment if they are to meet the next challenge to come.

It turns out the Starmers are good at that sort of thing.

Title: Stunned silence, hugs and a very big kiss: at home with the Starmers on election night
Source: the Guardian
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Date: July 7, 2024 at 06:18PM
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