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Keir Starmer: The Lawyer

Oliver Eagleton on Labour leader Keir Starmer’s past life as Director of Public Prosecutions, and what it reveals about the kind of politician he is.

Oliver Eagleton11 June 2024

Keir Starmer: The Lawyer

Friends and colleagues who have known Keir Starmer since he was a junior barrister say that he sees himself primarily as a ‘modernizer’ – capable of streamlining institutions and maximizing their efficiency. This was the spirit he brought to the Crown Prosecution Service in 2008, determined to complete his predecessor Ken Macdonald’s reforms and take it on ‘a journey into the 21st century’. But because his arrival coincided with the era of austerity, his ability to establish new departments or promote legal advocacy was compromised. Amid the cutbacks, the government was most willing to assist the CPS, financially and operationally, on projects that benefited its security interests. The main avenue for institutional development – where Starmer could make his mark – involved close collaboration with the Tories, the intelligence agencies, and their allies across the Atlantic. 

Starmer presided over the expansion of the CPS International Division, which had been created years earlier by a Whitehall lawyer but sat mostly dormant until 2008. Its purpose was to combat ‘national security threats’ by connecting the CPS with foreign judicial institutions, allowing the former to advise the latter on prosecuting terrorism weapons, drugs and migration offences. The rationale was that a domestic crime prevention strategy could not be confined to Britain’s borders: the CPS must work alongside the Foreign Office and intelligence services to identify ‘risks’ in faraway places and neutralize them before they reached our shores. While legal services at home were devastated by attorney general Dominic Grieve’s cuts, money poured into these overseas operations. A network of ‘Criminal Justice Advisers’ was established, stretching from Colombia to Tanzania, with the aim of exporting CPS ‘best practice’.

They would instruct judicial authorities on the correct standards for prosecution, the proper relationship between lawyers and police, transparency procedures and administrative protocols. Their recommendations included refining police interview techniques and restructuring entire legal departments. The first CJAs were deployed in 2009 to former colonies Ghana and Sierra Leone, and later to the Caribbean – countries chosen for their significance in the international drug trade, as gateways through which South American cocaine is funnelled into Europe. Starmer worked to cut off trafficking routes by increasing prosecution and policing capacities in these states – which, in practice, meant propping up criminal justice systems with uniquely draconian drug laws.

Starmer’s remaking of the CPS as a front in the transnational War on Drugs won plaudits from the Tory–Lib Dem cabinet. He bragged to colleagues that, for the first time in CPS history, government ministers were calling up the DPP’s office to praise its work, and offering generous subsidies for CJA deployments which advanced their overseas interests. Starmer also began liaising with the National Security Agency and Specialist Operations directorate to determine where the CPS should focus its foreign efforts.

From 2013 his team worked closely with the Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill, formerly NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan. One of the leading members of the International Division under Starmer told me, ‘We were joined up with the government. We made sure that what we were doing was most relevant to the UK’s international objectives.’

In February 2013, the foreign secretary, William Hague, announced that the CPS would begin ‘building up the counter-terrorism capacity of overseas security services’ and ‘supporting prosecutors and judges to ensure that they are capable of processing terrorism cases through the court systems’. This was billed as a ‘justice and human rights’ programme, but one can gauge the priority given to these principles from the countries where it operated: Yemen, Somalia, Kenya and Afghanistan, among others. Starmer’s CJAs roamed these war-torn nations accompanied by a phalanx of armed guards provided by private security contractors.

They offered their support to judicial authorities and security forces as the latter fought off insurrections and opposition movements. The routine practices of these states – arbitrary arrests, torture of detainees, extrajudicial killings, dispersal of protests – did not deter Starmer’s roving lawyers. Where such abuses were common, said Hague, the UK would not ‘disengage’ with culpable regimes, but ‘cooperate with them in a carefully controlled way while developing a more comprehensive approach to human rights adherence’ (for which read: place it on the back burner).

As part of this closer alignment between executive and judiciary, Starmer himself took on the responsibilities of a British diplomat. He paid official visits to countries that agreed to adopt the judicial reform packages proposed by the CPS – chairing the inaugural meeting of Sierra Leone’s criminal justice board and posing for photos with its president. His willingness to be wheeled out for such ceremonial duties was ‘a huge part of promoting British soft power’ under Cameron, according to a former International Division employee, who described how Starmer also applied pressure to foreign governments that were reluctant to follow the UK’s instructions.

When the Tories planned to confront organized crime in Albania, for instance, he was flown into Tirana and instructed to advise the country’s senior politicians – some of whom were thought to be involved with criminal cartels – on the importance of a robust and independent prosecution service. The irony of the DPP promoting judicial autonomy on the orders of the British government was not lost on his Albanian hosts, one of whom was so outraged by Starmer’s condescension that he almost stormed out of their meeting. 

A senior CPS lawyer under Starmer remarked that his overseas strategy ‘redrew the map’ on how international prosecutors worked, compromising both their operational autonomy and their practical utility. Decisions were no longer based on the imperative to prosecute cases in the public interest, but on top-down government directives. Since high-ranking CPS staff were reluctant to send their lawyers abroad, the CJA programme was forced to hire externally, prompting an influx of prosecutors with scant knowledge of the CPS, let alone the countries to which they were dispatched. These new recruits ‘thought they were diplomats forging a brave new world’, said one CPS official. ‘But we aren’t diplomats. We’re prosecutors. And our independence as prosecutors is extremely important.’ 

Shortly after Starmer left the CPS, the International Division began working in Tunisia, Ethiopia, Greece, Senegal and Calais to stem the flow of refugees to Britain, as part of the Home Office drive to externalize migration controls. The Cameron government’s calculation was that the increasingly polarized debate on EU membership could be defused, and the electoral threat of UKIP diminished, if the government deterred a sufficient number of migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. Domestically, this involved the state-led harassment of asylum seekers under the ‘hostile environment’ policy. Abroad, it entailed strengthening the legal infrastructure to trap people (many of them financially destitute and facing political persecution) inside their own countries, through crackdowns on ‘people smugglers’ and ‘illegal departures’. A former CPS employee described this as one of Starmer’s ‘legacy points’: ‘a result of the programme that he had developed’.


Working hand-in-glove with the security services, the DPP lost whatever progressive instincts he once had, especially where foreign policy or civil liberties were concerned. He began to identify with ‘a strong statist tradition’, according to a former colleague, believing in the ‘effective use of the criminal justice system to provide for an effective state’. As Andrew Murray observes in Is Socialism Possible in Britain?, ‘It is wrong to say that it is unclear what Starmer stands for. He stands for the state, its servants, its perquisites and their protection from the toils of democracy.’ 

The widespread notion that Starmer is a political outsider – with no experience in this domain before his election to parliament in 2015 – is therefore mistaken. Actually, Starmer spent much of his time as DPP advancing the government’s overseas agenda, negotiating with world leaders on its behalf, rewriting CPS guidelines to complement its domestic programme, and shielding its allies from investigation. He acted as a Cameron–Osborne mouthpiece on issues from welfare entitlements to public order. Sir Keir may not identify with the Conservatives; his upbringing instilled a tribal affiliation to Labour. But by 2010 he had nonetheless embraced a right-wing statist-Atlanticism that was more or less aligned with the coalition’s interests, completing the journey from underdog defence lawyer to decorated Knight of the Realm.

Accompanying this transition was a growing bureaucratic mentality, developed at the CPS and then transplanted to the political sphere. Starmer’s attitude to the organization was often hyper-meticulous; his administrative changes were based on mass consultations, data-gathering exercises, step-by-step procedures and painstakingly formulated codes of conduct. His approach was more rigorous and granular than that of his predecessors, and colleagues were impressed by his unremitting work ethic.

Yet masked by this professionalism was a lack of confidence that would come to the fore a decade later, at the apex of his political career. Starmer’s technocratic method compensated for an inability to make swift or definitive decisions, allowing him to hide behind official processes and delegate difficult judgements. In reforming the CPS’s relationship with the Bar, for instance, he was more comfortable pursuing a slow and managerial strategy than the confrontational one favoured by Macdonald. Caution was his watchword – a fine quality in a lawyer, but less attractive in a politician. This stunted capacity for decision-making has conditioned his reliance on advisers, focus groups and ‘listening exercises’ as Labour leader.

Starmer’s flexible approach to facts has also been carried over into his new profession. The prosecutor famously told journalists that he opposed harsh sentences in response to the 2011 riots, when in fact he had taken concrete steps to increase their severity. He assured the public that he had commissioned a ‘thorough’ examination of phone hacking evidence, when he had requested only a partial and inadequate review. He went on to claim that he had ‘taken on the Murdoch press for phone hacking’, despite being reprimanded by MPs for his failure to do so.

He asserted that the ‘independent’ Rose report had refuted accusations of a systemic problem with spycops, when in fact it was a patent whitewash. Such distortions were not only intended to shield the CPS from criticism. They were also aimed at protecting Starmer’s reputation, so that once he quit as DPP he could prepare to enter parliament. From 2008 to 2013, CPS decisions that would normally be announced by anonymous spokespeople were instead broadcast at major press conferences fronted by Starmer. The lawyer carefully controlled his media image, such that by the end of his term newspapers frequently referred to him as ‘Britain’s fairest man’. This aptitude for self-fashioning aided his political elevation.

— An edited excerpt from The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right by Oliver Eagleton.

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The Starmer Project
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