Shortly after Sir Keir Starmer was elected Labor leader, one of his advisers explained to me how he would be sold to the British people. “We’re going to present him as our Eliot Ness,” he said, referring to Kevin Costner’s incorruptible crime fighter who successfully took down Al Capone in the Hollywood blockbuster The Untouchables.
“It will build on his time as director of the Public Prosecution Service. That’s a different kind of background for a Labor leader.’
Over the past month, Labour’s last day Eliot Ness has put the Tories under a lot of pressure. In a speech he promised: ‘Everyone protected, everyone respected. No one denied the law. No one above the law. Not Stephen Lawrence’s killers – who for a time thought they were. Not Al Qaeda terrorists. No MPs, Labor or Conservative, playing the expense system to line their pockets. I prosecuted them all and I am proud of it. One rule for everyone.’
Last week he was there again. “As a former Director of Public Prosecutions, my life’s work has been to make our country safer and more secure, to build a better Britain for families everywhere,” he boasted, before defending his ad portraying Rishi Sunak as labeled a soothing pedophile. “I stand by every word,” he proclaimed.
Reasonable. Let Sir Keir stick to his words – and his track record. And let’s see what his time as the country’s chief prosecutor tells us about what he would be like as prime minister.
DAN HODGES: Last month Labour’s last day Eliot Ness has put a lot of pressure on the Tories (file image)
A good place to start is the infamous Savile controversy.
Last year, Boris Johnson caused a stir by claiming that Starmer had spent most of his time as DPP “prosecuting journalists and not prosecuting Jimmy Savile.”
Shortly afterwards, the Labor leader had to be bundled into a police car to escape an angry mob chanting that he was a ‘paedophile protector’. He angrily denounced Johnson’s “ridiculous insult by right-wing trolls,” ranting, “He’s doing it because he doesn’t understand what honesty and integrity means.”
But as we have seen, it is Keir Starmer who is now spreading slander that his political opponents are pedophile protectors. And who, for reasons of electoral importance, has thrown honesty and integrity into the gutter.
The Savile row is revealing in other ways as well. At the time of the controversy, a spokesperson for Starmer insisted that he “would not comment on individual cases.” But journalists were told privately that it was inappropriate to blame him, as he had not been directly involved in the decision to drop the prosecution of the BBC presenter.
Both claims are misleading on several levels.
When it suits him, Starmer is only too happy to talk about individual cases from his time as DPP. Stephen Lawrence is one. Another he often quotes is that of Daniel James, who was paralyzed in a rugby accident and whose parents helped their son die at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich. “In that case, if you read the interview, you would cry,” Starmer said, justifying his decision not to pursue charges.
Last Monday, he tweeted about the case of John and Penny Clough, whose daughter was murdered by an abusive ex-partner: “I wanted to make sure no other family went through what John and Penny had to go through. So we changed the law.’
Labor came under fire over an advertisement claiming Rishi Sunak does not believe adults convicted of child sexual abuse should be in prison
Likewise, when the failure to charge Savile came fully to light — after a critical internal review by Starmer’s own chief legal counsel, Alison Levitt — it was clear that the responsibility lay not with the case’s chief prosecutor, but with the public prosecutor’s office. Ministry as a whole.
And we know this because Emily Thornberry, Starmer’s shadow cabinet colleague, responded on behalf of Labor by saying at the time: ‘This is a serious denial of justice for the victims. The institutional shortcomings involved are staggering… there needs to be a culture change in the organization.”
The current Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, added: “We need a proper overall assessment led by child protection experts to see why everyone hasn’t stopped Savile and what needs to be done now.”
Everyone, it seems, except her own leader.
But how credible is it that Starmer really was unaware of the decision to charge Savile at the time it was made? In 2012, while still a DPP, he took part in a lecture at the London School of Economics in which he was questioned about the criteria and systems he used to determine what matters he personally oversaw.
DAN HODGES: Last year Boris Johnson caused a stir by claiming that Starmer had spent most of his time as DPP ‘prosecuting journalists and not prosecuting Jimmy Savile’
“Is that ever driven by personality?” he was asked. “Does the fact that someone is known, even in a case that is relatively trivial, mean that you have a system that makes you aware of it?”
In response, Starmer replied, “One of our criteria is whether the case would have an impact on the reputation of the CPS. So that may be because it’s a particularly sensitive matter. Perhaps because it deals with a particularly sensitive issue. So it’s not personal, but it’s… Of course, I’m personally concerned about any case that could affect the reputation of CPS.”
Savile was one of the most high-profile celebrities of his generation. He was accused of being a serial child sexual abuser. When interviewed by police, he warned them that he would file a lawsuit and the case would ‘end up at the Old Bailey’. The failure to prosecute him was one of the greatest in CPS history.
Still, Starmer seriously wants people to believe that at no time was this case considered sensitive enough, or posed enough potential reputational damage to the CPS, to bring it to his attention.
When asked more broadly about his ethos as a DPP, Starmer also gave another revealing answer. “I need to empower my teams to make decisions,” he explained. “That means I enjoy the party when they get it right, and I wear the can when they get it wrong. And that’s part of it.’
But that is not it. Where things went well during his time at the CPS, he wants to take credit. Where things went wrong, he wants to claim that it was someone else’s fault, or that he was the victim of an unscrupulous smear.
And if you doubt that, see what Starmer’s own staff thinks. In 2011, halfway through his tenure, an internal CPS employee survey was leaked to the press. Only 21 percent of those surveyed said they believed Starmer’s actions were “aligned with the values of the CPS.” Even fewer – 12 percent – agreed with the statement ‘the organization is well managed’.
Presented with these results, CPS senior managers instructed staff to undergo “retraining.” According to a CPS official, “It was a strange reaction. It seemed as if the superiors were trying to brainwash us’.
DAN HODGES: Savile (pictured) was one of the most high-profile celebrities of his generation. He was accused of being a serial child sexual abuser
Starmer’s time as DPP is indeed instructive. Yes, he has important achievements to his name. But he’s not shy about bragging about them, even when framed by the tragedy of others.
He is proud of his palmares, in many cases rightly so. But he wants it to be selectively scrutinized. And where mistakes are found, he tries to ensure that the responsibility ends elsewhere.
There are also signs that, in his eagerness to confront the Tories on their traditional battlefield of crime and punishment, he is beginning to lose all sense of perspective.
No one sitting in their chair when the Savile file went through the office shredder can seriously claim to have overseen “justice for all.”
At the end of The Untouchables, Eliot Ness gets his moment of triumph. But it has a price.
In the defining scene, the principled crusader for justice hurls Capone’s defenseless henchman off the roof of the courthouse. And in that case everything he used to hate becomes.
Sir Keir Starmer’s allies are right. He may very well turn out to be Labour’s Eliot Ness.