How Obama mentored the new UK prime minister to help him tell his story

  • Keir Starmer is the UK’s new prime minister after his Labour Party won Thursday’s election.

  • He’s had help opening up about his personal story from an unlikely source: Barack Obama.

  • The relationship could continue after Starmer takes office.

Britons have voted and the UK is posed up for a radical change in leadership.

The left-wing Labour Party has won more than 400 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, which means its leader, Keir Starmer, is to be prime minister and 14 years of Conservative Party rule is over.

Starmer declared, “Change begins now,” at a rally early Friday morning as results poured in, but his victory came despite the fact he’s often described as lacking charisma.

Jill Rutter, a research fellow at the London research group UK in a Changing Europe, had told The New York Times he “does look relatively prime-ministerial,” but added, “He’s not going to set hearts racing.”

Starmer entered politics relatively late, first being elected to the UK’s House of Commons at age 52 in 2015. Before that, he was a lawyer who rose to become the chief prosecutor for England and Wales; he had a big public profile but no need to ask the public for votes.

As a candidate for high office, Starmer has had no choice but to tell his back story. After becoming Labour leader in 2020, he stressed his humble roots, often describing how his father worked as a toolmaker and his mother a nurse while they raised their children in a “pebble-dash semi,” a small home adjoining another property.

But Starmer has seemed, at times, ill at ease with the public display of emotion needed to tell his story, despite it being a political asset that offers a stark contrast with the outgoing prime minister Rishi Sunak.

Sunak, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is married to Akshata Murty, the daughter of the Indian billionaire and Infosys founder N. R. Narayana Murthy. The Sunday Times reported in May that the couple’s net worth was £651 million, which is about $830 million.

In recent months, Starmer has made a concerted effort to appear more relatable to voters and emphasize that contrast.

He’s been helped by an unlikely mentor: former US President Barack Obama.

Obama encouraged Starmer to be vulnerable

In a series of Zoom calls, Obama, who served as US president from 2009 until 2017, encouraged Starmer to become more vulnerable and open with the public and has spoken with the Labour leader about the difficult decisions he made in the Oval Office.

Politico reported that the pair were first introduced by David Lammy, one of Starmer’s key lieutenants, who will become his foreign secretary if Labour wins.

Speaking on Politico’s “Power Play” podcast in March, Lammy said he and Obama had known each other for 20 years since meeting at an event for Black alumni of Harvard University.

When Obama dropped in to meet Sunak in March, he also met Lammy for dinner, The Telegraph reported.

Lammy said Obama’s influence on Starmer was apparent when the Labour leader recently opened up about his family’s backstory “much more comfortably than perhaps we saw a few years ago.”

“And I know that Obama has strong views that Keir should do that,” he added.

David Lammy and Starmer last year.Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Lammy was speaking after Starmer gave an extended interview to Sky News, in which he described how his mother had Still’s disease, a rare type of inflammatory arthritis.

He said his father spent most of his time looking after her, and this had “squeezed” his “emotional space” and made him more emotionally distant from his children.

“I probably should have addressed that before he passed, and I wish I had, but I didn’t,” Starmer added.

Kitty Donaldson, a political journalist in the UK, told Business Insider this interview marked a turning point in Starmer’s public display of emotion.

“Up until that point, Starmer had been very stiff, very practical, very straitlaced,” Donaldson said, adding that Obama “unlocked” and “gave permission” for Starmer to open up.

“In terms of his leadership style, it’s had an impact,” she said. “Obama is quite laid back. This campaign has been more laid back than we have seen, and he seemed to enjoy going up and down the country speaking to people.”

Tom Packer, an honorary research fellow at University College London who specializes in US politics and elections, told BI that Starmer’s backstory had become a “theme of the campaign.”

He said it helped challenge the idea that all UK politicians come from a “posh background” without struggle.

Obama could advise Starmer on how to deal with Trump

Obama’s and Starmer’s relationship is likely to continue if Starmer wins the election on Thursday.

Obama had helped Starmer since at least 2021, when The Guardian reported that they were involved in two hours’ worth of private talks with Lammy about how center-left parties could return to power.

Speaking on the “Power Play” podcast in September, Starmer said Obama was the US president he spoke to “most frequently.”

“I’ve spoken to him a number of times, and his analysis on the world is always interesting, his challenges, and just going through with him what he faced, how he rose to the challenges,” Starmer said.

“It is always useful to test my ideas on people who won elections, people who’ve taken difficult decisions in power because that helps me think about how we might approach some of the decisions we might have to take if we do win that election,” he added.

Packer said Obama and Starmer’s relationship made sense, given the decadeslong ties between the UK’s Labour Party and the US Democratic Party.

Donaldson meanwhile suggested Starmer might seek advice from Obama on dealing with Donald Trump if the former president is reelected in November.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden standing behind podiums in a CNN studio.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden went head-to-head in the first presidential debate of the year on June 27.Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

Trump is leading the polls, and Biden’s shaky performance during the first presidential debate on June 27 has led Democrats to panic and urge him to step aside for another candidate.

Speaking to Politico last September, Starmer said his team had been in talks with Biden, adding, “It’s clear what my desired outcome would be.”

Packer told BI that Starmer and his team wouldn’t want to put “their eggs in one basket” and would be eager to secure “some kind of relationship with Trump that works,” regardless of their political differences.

Trump “finds it hard to be nasty about people that are nice to him,” Packer said.

He added that if Starmer were “nice,” a Labour government could end up with a good relationship with Trump “even if they disagree with him on policy.”

He noted that Starmer had been careful to avoid making anti-Trump comments during his election campaign.

In an interview with BBC Radio 5 last week, Starmer was asked whether he agreed with Lammy’s 2018 description of Trump as a “woman-hating neo-Nazi-sympathizing sociopath” and a “profound threat to the international order.”

“Those aren’t words that I’ve ever used,” Starmer responded.

“I know the job of the person who leads our country is to deal with the leaders of other countries, who are elected by their people. You don’t always get to choose the leaders of other countries,” he continued.

Lammy has also softened his stance. He told a summit in May that Trump’s position on European defense was “misunderstood” and he merely “wants Europeans to do more to ensure a better defended Europe,” according to Politico.

After Trump was convicted of paying Stormy Daniels hush money, Starmer called it “unprecedented.”

But he said, “We will work with whoever is elected,” adding, “We have a special relationship with the US that transcends whoever the president is.”

Correction: July 4, 2024 — An earlier version of this story misspelled N. R. Narayana Murthy’s surname as Murty. It also misstated the date of Trump and Biden’s first presidential debate. It was on June 27, not June 28.

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