‘I Doubt He’ll Decorate With Any Ludicrously Expensive Wallpaper’: Alastair Campbell On What Awaits The Starmers At No 10

Labour has won the general election in a landslide. Here, Alastair Campbell explains what life will look like for the new Prime Minister and his family.

by Alastair Campbell |
Updated on

So Labour have won, Keir Starmer has followed Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair in becoming just the fourth person to lead Labour from opposition to government. Quite a feat for the leader of a party which feared for its very survival in the wake of the crushing defeat of 2019.

Sometimes – today is one of those days - security will wait to open the famous black door of No 10 Downing Street because the world’s media will be in their droves on the other side of the street, taking pictures of the new Prime Minister arriving, waving, posing, speaking, before walking in. Those images – think of Margaret Thatcher quoting Francis of Assisi in 1979, or Tony Blair greeting flag-waving crowds in 1997 – will become part of the national memory, part of history, to be shown and broadcast on media time and time again.

Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, and Victoria Starmer, his wife, at a Labour Party election night results watch event in London, UK, on Friday, July 5, 2024. Keir Starmer's Labour Party won the UK general election and is on course for a huge parliamentary majority with votes still being counted, a result that upends British politics after Rishi Sunak's Conservatives imploded. Photographer: Betty Laura Zapata/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It is an important moment for the country, but an important moment for this family too. Starmer will be starting a new job and his wife, Victoria, and their two children moving into a new house on the same day. They have gone to some lengths to shield their son, 16, and daughter, 13, from the media, not naming them in public, never being photographed with them. Still, his life, and that of his family, is about to change forever.

Keir Starmer, UK prime minster, delivers the first speech of his premiership, following the general election, outside 10 Downing Street in London, UK, on Friday, July 5, 2024. Keir Starmer's Labour Party won the UK general election and is on course for a huge parliamentary majority with votes still being counted, a result that upends British politics after Rishi Sunak's Conservatives imploded. Photographer: Jose Sarmento Matos/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I’m sure there will have been times when the Labour team have pressed him and Vic to let the public into their family life. But they have always been clear that Vic will carry on working in the NHS, and that their children should be able to remain out of the public eye. It is something I’ve discussed with them and I know how determined they are. They are absolutely right to have laid down the law on this so clearly.

Right now the Keir I know will be feeling excited but he won’t lose focus. We won’t see any clumsy slips of the tongue. He’ll be knackered but buoyed up. As politicians go, he doesn’t have a big ego and the win won’t go to his head. He’ll be the kind of Prime Minister to make his own tea and hold the door open for others, rather than let staff open doors for him. I doubt he’ll decorate with any ludicrously expensive wallpaper. Inside, Downing Street will end up looking like any normal family home, teenagers’ paraphernalia strewn here and there.

As to what greets the PM when he finally walks through the door, first is the security man who will have been monitoring it all on that screen, then the Cabinet Secretary, head of the civil service, and lined on either side of the corridor leading to the Cabinet Room, permanent staff who will clap him in.

When a government changes party, these are of course the same people who have been working flat out for another man, leader of another party. Indeed, one of my abiding memories of 1997, having walked in behind Tony Blair, was my first meeting with the woman who was to be my PA, Alison Blackshaw, who at one point burst into tears. ‘Sorry,’ she sobbed, ‘It’s just that I really liked John Major.’ This was not the greatest of starts, considering I had devoted the best part of three years trying to help Labour bring the man down. But she became utterly indispensable to me. These are the people who make the machine work, regardless of who the country elects. Secretaries, cleaners, duty clerks, messengers, and the senior officials and policy advisors who make sure the wheels of the PM’s private office turn smoothly.

LONDON - AUGUST 29: Director of Communications for British Prime Minister Tony Blair Alastair Campbell (R) and his partner Fiona Millar leave Downing Street August 29, 2003 in London England. Campbell announced his resignation today stating his family have suffered because of his job. (Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

My other abiding memory is of the feeling of utter exhaustion after a long campaign and a night without sleep, mixed with the daunting sense of responsibility as I started a new job, heading up government communications. So imagine how much greater that must be for Keir Starmer, a new Prime Minister, one of whose first meetings is to be briefed on the protocols and practicalities for the use of nuclear weapons.

One of the first things Starmer has to do is appoint his Cabinet. Coming from Opposition, it is usually the case that a Prime Minister will appoint the shadow cabinet to the same positions, this time in government. But what happens if one of them didn’t win in their constituency? Or if during the campaign the Prime Minister decided to make a few changes, based upon better performance by some than others? He may find his first days taken up with tricky personnel issues.

It is remarkable, though, how quickly you adapt to a new reality. Shadow ministers who have been campaigning on a shoestring with a couple of special advisers suddenly have huge government departments to run, thousands of people to call on, and are constantly being addressed as ‘Secretary of State.’

Unlike the Tories, who have had three female Prime Ministers, Labour are yet to have their first. However, some very powerful women will be huge players in the new government, including deputy leader Angela Rayner. Rachel Reeves will be the first woman ever to hold the post of Chancellor she’s already spoken of removing the urinal currently in the Treasury. Another of the great Offices of State, the Home Office, will be held by Yvette Cooper, Bridget Phillipson will be in charge of schools in England, Louise Haigh in charge of transport. Added to which Sue Gray, a former civil servant who left to be Starmer’s chief of staff, will be a central figure in government.

It will be the first gender-balanced Cabinet and was a historic victory for women's representation, as we saw 264 women MPs elected, which means they make up 41% of this Parliament. It’s not 50% but it’s an improvement.

BLACKPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 05: Labour's shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves campaigns at Blackpool Cricket Club on April 05, 2024 in Blackpool, England. Labour's Shadow Chancellor was joined by Labour's Shadow Paymaster General Jonathan Ashworth and Labour's by-election candidate Chris Webb to unveil the party's poster campaign on the 'Tory Tax Double Whammy'. The by-election, slated for May 2nd, follows the resignation of Scott Benton, the former independent MP for Blackpool South, who stepped down in March, in the wake of his suspension from the Conservatives amidst a lobbying scandal. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Messages of congratulation and demands for a phone call with the PM will be flooding in as we speak. And a judgement has to be made about which to reply to, which calls to take. ‘Prime Minister, please hold for the White House Situation Room, the President is on the line,’ is without doubt one of those moments when you realise the world has changed.

More prosaically, there will be immediate and pressing scheduling issues to address. During the campaign, Starmer made clear economic growth is the key to all his promises being fulfilled. So how is it going to be delivered? The new body to deliver green energy, how will it work? The plans for more teachers and more NHS appointments, how will they look when the words of the campaign are turned into the deeds of government?

On the policy front, with economic growth the number one mission, it has been interesting how much childcare has featured as an economic as well as a social issue, and that will become a big part of the Labour plan. We will soon see a male-female breakdown of the vote, but my guess is that more women voted Labour than men, on issues like housing, better maternity, general NHS care and action on violence against women and girls.

Meanwhile, civil servants and special advisers will be getting to know each other and trying to turn the promises of the campaign and the manifesto into a programme for government. Before you know it, the first King’s Speech of the new Parliament will be upon us, and that is the moment at which the grand claims of the campaign trail have to be turned into the hard graft of making change.

Most of his life, Starmer has been underestimated, but always set himself big goals, and surpassed expectations. He has done it again. Whether he can do it in the toughest job in UK politics, we are about to discover.

Alastair Campbell Talks Politics and Little Experts Politics Matters by Alastair Campbell are published by Red Shed and out now, RRP £9.99.

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