Mr. Starmer has not gone that far, but in August he persuaded the somewhat euroskeptical Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and others to soften Labour’s policy and call for a standstill period of transition after withdrawal, scheduled for March 2019, to protect the economy.

Within weeks, Prime Minister Theresa May had done the same. Meanwhile, Labour is harrying Mrs. May’s fragile government in Parliament, trying to build a cross-party alliance of lawmakers to amend Brexit legislation to ward off any prospect of a “cliff edge” or “no deal Brexit,” where Britain crashes out without a trade agreement.

Articulate, personable, yet serious and intense, Mr. Starmer, 55, a former human rights lawyer, has held one of Britain’s top legal jobs and been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. (He prefers not to use the title “sir.”)

Allies portray him as approachable, hard-working and a devoted fan of the Arsenal soccer team.

“Do we discuss Marcel Proust? No,” said his friend and fellow lawyer, Philippe Sands. “Do we occasionally go to Arsenal together? Yes.”

“If you go to the pub with him you will see him in his element: down to earth, grounded, connected to those around him,” Mr. Sands added.

That is not the view of the right-leaning and stridently pro-Brexit Daily Mail, which described Mr. Starmer as “suave” and “uber-ambitious,” while deriding more favorable news coverage.

“Simpering media reports highlighted his smart suits, floppy hair and chiseled good looks,” it wrote. “Indeed, actor Colin Firth was said to have based his performance as Mark Darcy (the human rights lawyer character in the Bridget Jones films) on Starmer.”

According to Mr. Firth, that is incorrect. But, while Mr. Starmer was the director of public prosecutions — effectively the country’s chief prosecutor — his persona was once borrowed by a con man to impress female victims.

The real Mr. Starmer is in fact extremely courteous even — according to Mr. Sands — at 7 a.m. meetings.

“He will seek out a decent position to take that those with a range of different positions can be associated with, even where there are extreme polarities of view,” Mr. Sands said.

Such attributes have been vital since the referendum, which tore Labour in opposite directions. While younger, metropolitan supporters generally opted to stay in the European Union, many traditional working-class voters were attracted by the Brexit campaign’s focus on curbing immigration.

Photo

Mr. Starmer campaigning in Pembrey, Wales, in May.

Credit
Geoff Caddick/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Labour lawmakers overwhelmingly wanted to remain, but Mr. Corbyn and John McDonnell, the party’s spokesman on financial affairs, worried that the European Union’s rules might obstruct some of their interventionist economic policies.

Mr. Starmer seems to have won the point by persuading them that a rupture with the European Union would wreak enough havoc to render their economic priorities moot.

“In the end, if you want to implement a progressive set of policies, then you need a strong economy in order to do so,” Mr. Starmer said.

That sort of quiet, behind-the-scenes persuasion comes naturally to Mr. Starmer, whose father was a toolmaker and mother a nurse, and who became the first university graduate in his family.

His was a left-wing household, and Mr. Starmer was named after Keir Hardie, who rose from humble origins to become the first leader of the Labour Party. Mr. Starmer recalls wishing as a teenager that he had been called Dave or Pete instead.

“The last thing you want is to be different to everybody else,” he said. “Now it’s fantastic that people just say ‘Keir’ and most people know who they are talking about.”

Some believe Mr. Starmer might become the second Labour leader named Keir, though even fans admit that, with his legalistic delivery, he is not a rousing orator — like “watching the audience at a literary festival listen to a reading of T.S. Eliot,” one wit remarked after a recent parliamentary appearance.

After studying law at Leeds and Oxford Universities, Mr. Starmer became a lawyer specializing in human rights. He fought several high-profile cases, and subsequently rose to become director of public prosecutions.

Elected to Parliament in 2015, he found himself in a party led by Mr. Corbyn, Labour’s most left-wing leader in decades. Mr. Starmer promptly joined a rebellion and resigned his post. But he was soon brought back, this time in charge of Brexit policy.

Since then, he has helped shepherd the party through a June election, when Labour outperformed expectations and weakened Mrs. May, who lost her parliamentary majority and with it her ability to impose her will on a divided cabinet at war over Europe.

Then, during the summer, Mr. Starmer engineered the decisive softening of Labour’s Brexit policy, calling for a transition for “as short as possible, but as long as is necessary” after Britain quits the bloc in March 2019, during which Britain remains aligned with the bloc’s single market, which lays down common rules, and customs union, which smooths tariff-free trade.

For the longer term, he is open to membership in a customs union, though he is fuzzier about the single market. He argues that full membership would be impossible under current rules, but suggests that Labour could get a much closer alignment than the Conservatives because it believes in regulating labor and other standards and would not aim to undercut the European Union economically.

But some have speculated that he is playing a long game, expecting the transition period to be extended (as trade negotiations drag on) long enough for the public to turn against Brexit, particularly if the economy should go into a prolonged slump. Were that to happen, remaining part of the single market, at the very minimum, might seem attractive.

But pro-Europe critics predict that once Britain leaves the bloc, it would be too late to reverse Brexit.

“I think he is trying to be a bridge between essentially irreconcilable positions,” said Tom Baldwin, who was senior adviser to the previous Labour leader, Ed Miliband.

“Labour’s position is ducking, diving and triangulation,” Mr. Baldwin said, adding that Mr. Starmer’s idea for transition amounted only to “a cliff edge with a longer diving board than the Tory one.”

Mr. Starmer denies harboring a strategy for reversing Brexit, saying only that he is content to go on reconciling the Leavers and the Remainers in his party.

“Everybody has been urging me to jump one way or the other,” he said, “and I have refused, at every twist and turn.”

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