By Tevye Markson

05 Jul 2024

What was Keir Starmer like as a senior civil service boss? And what sort of PM will he make? CSW speaks to his former colleagues from his time as DPP

 

A civil servant becoming prime minister is a rare thing, although maybe not as rare as you might think.

In fact, there were three prime ministers in a row – between 1964 and 1979 – who had short spells in the civil service before beginning their political careers: Harold Wilson was director of economics and statistics at the Ministry of Fuel and Power from 1943-44; Edward Heath briefly worked in the Ministry of Civil Aviation; and James Callaghan became a tax officer at Inland Revenue aged 17.

Then there is Jacinda Ardern, who has worked in the UK’s Cabinet Office and Home Office and was until recently prime minister of New Zealand.

But Sir Keir Starmer, as of today the UK’s new prime minister, is something different: a former permanent secretary-level senior civil servant who attended Wednesday Morning Colleagues, the traditional weekly get-together for government’s most senior officials.

Starmer led the Crown Prosecution Service as director of public prosecutions from 2008 to 2013, handling major cases such the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the parliamentary expenses scandal and the 2011 riots; overseeing reforms such as the move from paper to digital; and delivering the swingeing cuts demanded by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government.

Cameras point at a young-looking Keir Starmer standing in a courtroom with the CPS logo on the wall behind hi
CPS director of public prosecution Starmer makes a statement about MP's who face charges over their expenses claims in February 2010. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

‘Up there with the best’: Keir Starmer the leader

Patrick Stevens worked at the CPS for 24 years and was head of international during Starmer’s five-year tenure. He reported directly to the DPP and travelled abroad with him for several weeks a year.

Stevens, who is now friends with Starmer, could not be more complimentary about the new prime minister’s leadership style.

“I would say that he is right up there with the best of the best that I've ever worked with,” he says. “He is an incredible leader who inspires people who work for him to be the very best they can. He has very little personal ego. He is very strong and willing to take challenge. He believes in consultation, openness and transparency.

“All views are valid and welcome, but once a path has been decided on and he's confident that there's the evidence base and that it's a priority, then he will be ruthlessly focused on delivery,” he adds. “He doesn't do anything that isn't going to make a difference. He's not concerned with ‘things for things’ sake’.”

Stevens also remembers how Starmer spoke to his staff.

“He told everyone to call him Keir,” Stevens says. “No one needed to call him ‘director’, as some people in the service had the habit of previously. He was on first-name terms with everyone, from Jackie at the front desk and the admin staff through to the senior leaders. He went round to all the offices, and took feedback and suggestions from anyone.”

“He doesn't do anything that isn't going to make a difference. He's not concerned with ‘things for things’ sake’”

He was interested in whether someone had a point to make, not what grade they were, Stevens adds.

“His team in the private office were utterly dedicated to him. My team in the international division in London all felt they could talk to him, all of the grades. All felt he was part of our team.”

Dame Alison Saunders, who was chief prosecutor for London and succeeded Starmer as DPP, describes Starmer as a “really good” boss who was “always really interested in what you were doing, but also quite challenging because he knew all the details”.

“He's got a forensic intellect and he will know his stuff,” she says.

“He knew exactly what was going on in your area. If I bumped into him in the lift, he could tell me what London was doing and if my stats were going in the right direction or not. But he was also interested in casework. So there was no pulling the wool over his eyes at all.

“I had seen some people try and blag their way through a meeting and that's not a good thing to do, because he'll ask all the pertinent questions and if you can't answer them, it’s not a comfortable seat to be in,” she adds.

But she says “he wasn't micromanaging at all” and that he was good at “getting the right team around him”. And if he trusted you and thought you were doing a good job, “he would give you lots of flexibility, lots of discretion”.

“He was really good at being human about people and understanding the challenges of what you were doing,” she says.

Nazir Afzal, who was the CPS’s chief prosecutor for north west England, says Starmer led by example: visible, supportive, getting involved in tricky cases, and always on the move.

Afzal says Starmer reached out to him from the beginning, seeking his help to get the service to engage more with the public than it had done previously. One of the first things he remembers is Starmer asking him along to a school in North London to talk to pupils:“I was anticipating 16-to-18 year olds, and it was a primary school, five-to-10 year olds. And so that was the most senior prosecutor of the land and the second most senior prosecutor talking to five-to-10 year olds.” Starmer “was just putting his toe in the water when it comes to engaging with the public in his new role as DPP,” Afzal says. This was the beginning of regular engagement with community groups, “perhaps once a month”.

Afzal says this focus on public engagement was part of Starmer’s ethos that “we are the public's prosecution service and therefore we should be engaging with them as often as we possibly can”. He adds that Starmer had regularly talked about wanting to rename the CPS the Public Prosecution Service.

Both Stevens and Afzal also remember Starmer as a team player who didn’t seek the spotlight.

“He refused to take the credit for lots of stuff,” Afzal says. “He recognised it wasn't about hogging the limelight… He was very clear that those who made the decisions should explain those decisions and whatever credit flows from that should follow.”

“He refused to take the credit for lots of stuff. He was very clear that those who made the decisions should explain those decisions and whatever credit flows from that should follow”

“There was really very little ego there,” Stevens says. “Ultimately, he knows if the CPS does well, he will get credit for it, but he doesn't need that public spotlight. He absolutely loves it when other people on his team, in his organisation, are getting plaudits… He's a top, top, top bloke.”

Stevens remembers having some “very frank” disagreements with Starmer on some issues, and going back “perhaps once or twice more than might have been wise for a senior leader to go against the top of the organisation”.

But he says Starmer was “utterly respectful” of his concerns and “admired the passion behind it”.

‘He put my safety first’: Starmer at his best

Starmer was at his best when talking to vulnerable people and responding to their concerns, Afzal says.

He remembers an occasion when Starmer met with stalking victims, at a time when “institutionally, all organisations were really bad at dealing with stalking because we had not taken it very seriously”.

“I remember him listening to the survivors talking about how the law needs to change, how the service’s approach needs to change. And he was really moved by that,” Afzal says. “And then I saw him change those things. We introduced guidance on stalking and harassment. The government changed the law and created a specific offence of stalking.”

Starmer really looked after his staff, Afzal adds. In 2012, Afzal’s home was attacked by far-right thugs. He says they were unhappy that he had –  by convicting the Rochdale grooming gang and becoming the face of the case – “damaged their narrative… that all brown people were rapists”.

Afzal needed police protection, his children had to go to school in taxis, and he received death threats. Starmer was “immensely supportive during that time, even in ways I didn't even appreciate,” he says.

“I didn't know this, but he told my direct staff that I was not to have any meetings between 9 and 10am and 3 and 4pm because I needed to be available to do the school run,” Afzal says. “He told people that Nazir was not to be invited to any meeting that was required to have an overnight stay because he needs to be at home to provide assurance to his family. I hadn’t asked for help. But he had done that himself. He put my security and safety uppermost at that time.”

He says this helped get him through a period when he was considering quitting to protect his family.

Afzal says the most significant change he witnessed Starmer make was also related to the Rochdale case, which involved changing the language the CPS used when it made a mistake.

“The only way we could get that case started was to tell the jury members, ‘We got this case wrong in 2008 when the original decision was taken, we're now putting it right’. But the word ‘wrong’ is not one used by civil servants. And I said, ‘That's the only thing that can get this case going’,” he says.

“Keir then went further. He said, ‘Right, OK, we need to change our guidance nationally’... We wouldn't use mealy-mouthed words to try and explain how something had not worked out. We would now admit when we got things wrong. You don't say, ‘The original decision was unreasonable and we've now revisited it’. No, ‘We got it wrong, ladies and gentlemen’, that's how you build public confidence.

“In order for the public to have confidence in us, we needed to be authentic. And I think he achieved that,” he says.

Stevens recalls times when his boss put the “country first, CPS second”, pointedly referring to one of Starmer’s most-used campaign slogans: “Country first, party second”.

One example was the introduction of the victim's right to review.

“It was extremely radical. People were completely against it. Some people thought it was going to mean we'd just be spending all our time doing reviews of appeals of our decisions, and how could we cope? We didn’t have the resource and all that. But Keir was adamant. This was very much country first, the CPS second. It was about, ‘We're there to serve the public. The public should have the right to challenge what we do, and so we have to find a way to make it work. It's not: can we afford to do it? It has to happen’. 

“That openness, transparency, applying those principles, being held to account to those principles, is a constant theme of anything that I've seen Keir Starmer do professionally.”

Starmer’s insistence that the CPS consult widely with the public when the High Court instructed  it to develop internal guidance on assisted suicide – a “radical” change in approach – is another reform that Stevens recalls with admiration.

When asked when she saw Starmer at his best, Saunders first jokes that it was when he was talking about football. But she goes on to say: “He was particularly good with victims that we met because he had a great deal of empathy and was really interested in their stories and understanding what they could tell him that could inform policy and actually make things better.”

Starmer was “perhaps not at his best” when giving formal speeches, but would “thrive” when answering questions and engaging with people, she adds. “You can see he's just more energised around that.”

Starmer looking off to the side and pointing, the CPS logo on the wall behind him
Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

‘One quick bit of pain’: How did Starmer deliver austerity and how might he approach the civil service headcount?

One of the more controversial aspects of Starmer’s time at the CPS is how he delivered on the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government’s austerity demands.

The Conservative administrations led by Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak promised to reduce the civil service workforce by tens of thousands but the headcount has, in fact, risen for seven years in a row. The coalition government Starmer served, on the other hand, lived up to its pledge of “an age of austerity”.

Coming into power two years into Starmer’s tenure as DPP, the Cameron-Clegg administration tasked departments with slashing their budgets. Starmer was asked to deliver 27% in cuts within three years, but did so within 18 months. He delivered “an austere service which was functional” ahead of schedule and without any “pushback”, according to Dominic Grieve, who was attorney general at the time.

Afzal told Channel 4 News last month that the way the cuts were delivered was a “mistake”, leading to the loss of experienced staff and corporate knowledge, and having a detrimental effect on the remaining staff’s mental health. It was “100%” an example of “how not to do public sector reform”, he said.

However, he tells CSW he blames himself as much as Starmer. “I was pretty much saying that I was responsible for all of that,” he said. “I had to deliver my own budget, therefore I was responsible for experienced staff leaving. It was my mistake. I did not appreciate that I was losing all of that corporate knowledge. But nationally, that's what we did as an organisation.”

Afzal doesn’t believe the speed of the cuts was a mistake, however, likening it to the short, sharp pain of pulling off a plaster. “I would imagine that’s something that he'd be keen to do again. We shouldn't be naval gazing about how we're going to do something.”

He adds he has spoken to Starmer about this recently and he “has no doubt” that the Labour leader has learned from the experience.

Starmer has not said what he plans to do about the size of the civil service, other than promising 5,000 more HMRC officials to tackle the tax gap, but he has pledged there will be “no more austerity”. He told Channel 4 that wielding the cuts at the CPS had given him “first-hand experience of what it means to inflict austerity on a public service, which is why I’m determined that we’ll never do it again”.

“Wielding cuts at the CPS gave me first-hand experience of what it means to inflict austerity on a public service, which is why I’m determined that we’ll never do it again” Starmer

However, he defended his approach, saying: “We had to make cuts and, therefore, this is hard. We had to shut offices and build bigger hubs… These are not easy choices to make.”

Starmer added that the independent HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate had asked him to continue in the role beyond his five-year term, “so people were pleased with the change and the progress we were making”.

Saunders recalls Starmer using the difficult situation to make positive changes to how the CPS operated “rather than just doing salami slice-type cuts”.

She says Starmer and the then-chief exec “appreciated you couldn't just keep saying to people, we need you to take 5% off your budget, or 10% of your budget, and then come back the next year and say the same”. 

“So what they started, and which we completed, was a much more radical [approach of], ‘Look, we just can't continue doing what we're doing with less money, so we need to look at different ways of doing things’. We went completely across onto a digital file, which means you then save millions in paper, storage, staff costs in finding paper, transporting paper, all that sort of thing.

“I think from that perspective, he will be very aware of the impact of budget cuts on departments and how you might best deal with it,” she says.

Stevens says Starmer wielded zero compulsory redundancies and is “not someone who's going to come in and just not care about what happens to individuals on the ground – that is not his style.”

But he thinks Starmer can find a way to do “more with less” without the pain.

“If you put in place a system that enables people to work more efficiently and more effectively, then you don't need those people [who you’ve lost through natural wastage]. So it is possible, objectively, to do more with less if you do it differently. What we've always had to suffer in the past is more for less with exactly the same demands in exactly the same ways, and that's where it kills everybody.”

Starmer’s legacy as DPP

Having taken over from Starmer, Saunders is well-placed to comment on the state he left the CPS in. She says he “did a lot for the service”, from enhancing how the CPS communicated with third sector and international partners, to “really good work with staff engagement”.

On the latter, she recalls that Starmer would visit all areas of the department once a year, meeting staff – a habit she adopted and later increased to twice a year. “And so even though we were going through some really stringent cuts and it was quite difficult, our staff engagement scores went up, and went up by more than the civil service norm.”

She also picks out his policymaking-via-consultation method: “I think that made the policies and the strategy of the CPS much stronger and encouraged more public confidence in the service,” she says.

For Stevens, Starmer’s biggest legacy as DPP was building the CPS “to such a confident position” that it allowed for Saunders to take over, the first internally appointed DPP in the organisation’s history. Starmer’s other big legacy was increased openness and transparency, he adds.

Afzal picks out his record in improving the conviction rate for violence against women and girls – which was at a record high by the time Starmer left the service. “We [also] had the highest conviction rate for tackling child sexual abuse in British history,” he adds.

“Those are the things that have the greatest impact on the most people. And I think that's the legacy he’d be most proud of, to be honest, that people were getting justice that previously people had not got.”

Starmer stands on a stage against a red background, smiling with his arms outstretched
Starmer gives his leader's speech at the Labour Party's Conference in 2021. Photo: Rupert Rivett/Alamy Stock Photo

‘It was obvious he was going to the top’ – did Starmer seem primed to become prime minister?

Starmer left the CPS in November 2013, became Labour’s candidate for the safe seat of Holborn and St Pancras in December 2014 and was elected as an MP in May 2015. 

“He had a whole range of options, many of which would have paid him a lot more and made his life easier than being an MP,” Stevens says, remembering conversations with Starmer at the end of his tenure about what was coming next.

Afzal says he had never discussed party politics with Starmer and it had never occurred to him that he might become an MP. It was only when he left and refused a peerage, accepting a knighthood instead, that Afzal thought, “He doesn't want to be in the Lords. I wonder why that might be.”

By the time Starmer left the CPS, Saunders says most people knew that he was likely to go into politics. “And I think no matter what he would do, it was pretty obvious he was going to get to the top,” she says.

A few months after becoming MP, Starmer was encouraged to stand for leader when Ed Miliband, who had helped persuade him to get into politics, resigned – but ruled himself out. Serving under Corbyn in several frontbench roles, including shadow Brexit secretary, he later beat Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy to be crowned leader in April 2020. 

Both Saunders and Stevens say they didn’t consider at that time that Starmer might one day become PM, but knew he would be a “major player”. “Because he’s too talented not to be,” Stevens says.

Saunders puts this down to his public service ethos, his desire to make things better for people, and being a “values-driven” person.

She recalls that many people had found his appointment as DPP “rather strange” – a successful member of the bar who had done little prosecution work – “but actually it sort of makes sense when you put those values together”.

What might Starmer’s experience as a senior civil servant bring to the role as prime minister?

When it comes to transferable experience, Afzal, Saunders and Stevens all point to his five years attending Wednesday Morning Colleagues. “I'm pretty sure it's public knowledge he didn't really enjoy the Wednesday morning meetings with the other permanent secretaries,” Afzal says. 

“He knew that he couldn't see anybody on a Wednesday morning. And our casework is 24/7. Whether he enjoyed it or not, I was never in that room. But it did mean that he was taken away from his day job, I guess, and I think that might have been sometimes not welcome.”

But, he adds, “to have experienced it every week for five years, I think will be a real benefit for him”.

Afzal believes these meetings, and being mentored by then-cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell – “an immensely experienced cabinet secretary, who clearly took Keir under his wing” – will have given him “a real understanding of how government delivers… and where the barriers might be”.

“You couldn't buy that kind of experience. It's not something you learn from a book,” Afzal says.

Saunders says the weekly catchup with perm secs, plus trilateral meetings he attended with the top civil servants at the Ministry of Justice and Home Office, will prove useful should Starmer wish to rearrange the civil service.

“He's very aware of the way in which it all intersects and that you need to have more of a connection across the departments,” she says.

Stevens adds that the Wednesday morning meetings will have given him access to strategic-level discussions, and “great insight into the challenges, the ways of working, the machinations of government and its architecture”.

He says Starmer also has experience of government “when it worked a lot better”.

Stevens goes on to highlight two more things that he believes could be particularly useful in the current climate of global insecurity. Firstly, Starmer’s experience on the international stage, meeting with world leaders and ministers to discuss issues such as the development of justice systems. And secondly, his insight into national security – something Starmer recently described as “the most important issue of our times” – having worked with the security and intelligence services, the National Crime Agency and the counter-terrorism police. “He was trusted by those people and he has great insight into the realities,” Stevens says.

What should civil servants expect from Starmer as PM?

Starmer has been criticised for not being radical enough, but Stevens says he is “a radical reformer”.

“I think he'll start with an image of what good looks like, and that's people working together, working collaboratively and not letting departmental egos get in the way of collective delivery,” he says. “He will also be bold enough to make decisions where that doesn't work. The old cliché of Sir Humphrey or the operational department saying we're totally operationally independent. You can be operationally independent, but you can still work strategically in a joined-up fashion. I think those are things that he understands.”

He believes Starmer is also “almost uniquely able” to bring about a change in politics that unifies people. “I think we have been through an unprecedented level of turbulence and chaos and disunity in our country for the last 10 years and we're seeing extremes growing around the world,” he says.

“We're seeing polarisation, we're seeing slogans, simple answers, and to some extent, the Labour Party was in that place four years ago and he has brought it to a place where there might be people that are not happy with it, but actually the appeal of the Labour Party is far broader than it's ever been before. And a lot of people that didn't feel comfortable in the Labour Party do feel comfortable now. And I've heard him say that he wants to make sure politics treads more lightly on people's lives.” 

“He is just the right man for the job at just the right time,” Stevens adds. “And I hope I'm right on that. I sincerely believe I am.”

Asked if there is another PM with whom Starmer might be comparable, Saunders says his background makes him a “pretty unique” prospect. “Having done private practice… public service in a very senior role. Even his private practice was different. They weren't big commercial cases. It was more about people… there is a thread through it about his values and what he can do to help people. I’m making him sound a bit, sort of, shrouded in a golden halo, but I don't mean to.”

Afzal says he hopes that Starmer “remains engaged with the public, understanding that it's a public service and you're only there because the public have faith in you”. 

“[I hope] that he realises that trust is the hardest thing to achieve and the easiest thing to lose, that people want that authentic self that he showed when he was DPP, and that he doesn't lock himself away in Downing Street or Westminster..”

Afzal mentions a comment Starmer made to Sunak during one of the election debates: “He said, ‘If you’d got out of your office and went around and talked to people, people might have more confidence in you”.

“That’s what he did as DPP and what I hope he'll do as prime minister,” Afzal says.

 

 

 

Read the most recent articles written by Tevye Markson - FSA chief Emily Miles to return to Defra

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