UK’s Starmer Is Suddenly the West’s Last Leader Standing Tall

(Bloomberg) -- One moment you’re shaking hands with Elmo in a town hall, the next you’re on the world’s biggest stage bearing the weight of the liberal order on your shoulders.

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Keir Starmer — who’s spent the last six weeks campaigning under the one-word banner of ‘change’ — is about to discover how in politics, it can come at you fast.

No one around the new UK prime minister would claim his victory on Thursday came as a surprise. But the fact he’s going to show up at the annual summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization just days later as the strongest leader in the room owes partly to the pace of events beyond his control.

In Washington he’ll be hobnobbing with Joe Biden, about whose deteriorating health fellow leaders have begun to break their silence. The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, will arrive wounded by his decision to call a snap election in which his own party look set to come third.

Unlike Macron, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz didn’t inflict his most recent trial at the ballot box on himself — but it’s hurt him nonetheless.

In that company, a leader who’s promised to reverse the damage successive Conservative administrations caused to his country’s international reputation stands out against the rest. And that’s despite the modesty of his proposals.

Officials representing progressive governments around the world have sent plaintive messages of congratulations to Starmer’s entourage in recent days, telling them that the new UK leader is now, as one put it, their only hope.

Starmer feels keenly the responsibility of those expectations, according to Labour aides who, like others from within the new administration, asked not to be named discussing private matters.

In an interview with Bloomberg just ahead of the election he acknowledged his country’s an outlier in a world that’s shifting in an ever more populist direction. The legislative elections in France have been dominated by the ascent of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party, and Donald Trump is increasingly the favorite to make a White House return after Biden’s disastrous debate performance.

“It’s very important we make the case that only progressive, democratic parties in government have the answers to the challenges that are out there,” Starmer told Bloomberg.

At next week’s meetings the leaders of the 32 NATO members will sit in alphabetical order interspersed by invited guests, likely putting Starmer between the United States’s Biden and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

The optics of that placement have shifted subtly since last week. Where before, the seating plan might have elevated Starmer, a former human rights lawyer and diplomatic novice, now some of the stardust may rub off the other way.

Biden’s candidacy is encircled by doubts. And that has knock-on effects for Ukraine given that Trump has expressed none of his rival’s commitment to the country’s long-term security. Starmer, on the other hand, will be arriving on the back of the most decisive UK election result since Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide.

The new prime minister has said he’ll use his mandate to take a leading international role in defense, security and climate. With China and Russia increasingly assertive, he aims to champion liberal democracy in the face of electoral breakthroughs by far-right parties elsewhere.

The UK is one of the NATO’s biggest spenders and has been a key supplier of arms to Ukraine since Putin’s invasion. The new prime minister’s team was made aware in transition talks with government officials that he is likely to face questions from allies on his plans.

Diplomats have quietly let it be known that Labour has caused uncertainty by committing to spend 2.5% of gross domestic product on defense “as soon as the public finances allow.” But Starmer doesn’t plan to change that position any time soon, people familiar with his thinking said — although he will still try to portray himself as hawkish on the issue and look to prioritize military spending.

That will form part of Starmer’s effort to create a manageable working relationship with Trump, should the former president win the US election. Starmer’s new Foreign Secretary David Lammy has been engaged in the challenging task of building alliances with a cosmos of right-wing Republicans.

Time to Prepare

Though Starmer remains relatively untested on the international stage, the unusually high poll lead he enjoyed months out from the general elections did gift his team time to prepare him.

Last year it was he and not then-Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who showed up at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Starmer also went to the COP28 climate talks in Dubai. With no official engagements for an opposition politician at the UN-sponsored summit, his team was taking a calculated risk, betting that the opportunity to run into world leaders informally would prevent him sitting idle.

That leaves allies with some notion of what to expect from Starmer at NATO. “A lot of expectations around that summit will be that they’re talking to a grown-up,” according to former diplomat Tom Fletcher, a foreign policy adviser to ex-prime ministers Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

“The body language and the tone will be as important as what they announce,” said Fletcher, speaking on Bloomberg’s Voternomics podcast.

Soon after NATO, Starmer’s government hosts a European Political Community meeting in Oxfordshire which Labour staff view as an opportunity to reset regional relationships.

Although his recent victory places him in a stronger domestic position than many of those allies, there’s enough in Thursday’s election results to suggest they have something to teach him in return. Beyond the headlines there were menacing longer-term signs for his government in the form of a new right-wing party which, though it only picked up four of the country’s 650 seats, came second in around 100.

While Starmer’s team arrives in office keenly aware of the challenge of showing a progressive government can deliver, at his first post-election press conference he gave away fewer clues as to its answers. “We will not be tempted as the last government was to pretend that money is there now which isn’t there,” the prime minister said.

--With assistance from Ailbhe Rea.

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