When he boarded a plane to Israel on May 9, Wes Streeting was merely an ambitious rising star in Britain’s Labour party. By the time he touched down at Ben Gurion airport, the 39-year-old was a potential party leader, possible future prime minister and, inevitably, a new Tony Blair. “I picked a good week to be away,” Streeting tells me later that day, as he munches a lamb pita in Tel Aviv’s Carmel market.

Streeting had spent the morning before his departure on television, defending Keir Starmer over “absurd” allegations the Labour leader had broken Covid-19 lockdown rules by sharing a beer and curry with party workers last year. While Streeting was in the air, Starmer stunned Westminster by vowing to quit if he is issued a fine, placing his political future in the hands of police in Durham, where the gathering took place, and potentially putting Labour’s leadership in play.

Streeting is convinced that Starmer will be cleared and lead the opposition to victory against Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in the general election that must be held by 2024. “Anyone who uses this moment to flash some ankle and to burnish their leadership credentials is, I think, deeply disrespectful to Keir and hindering the Labour party,” he says.

But Starmer’s dramatic move cast the spotlight on the man with the unlined face sitting in front of me in the Tel Aviv sunshine. Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, is in Israel on a week-long tour to see how the country’s health services use technology to reduce costs and improve patient care. Just over a year ago, when he was still a junior member of Starmer’s team, Streeting was diagnosed with kidney cancer. “I did feel anxious and afraid,” he says. “To be honest, I was just in shock.” A year later he is cancer-free and installed by bookmakers as second favourite to be Labour’s next leader, behind Manchester mayor Andy Burnham.

As remarkable as that may seem, it is in keeping with much of Streeting’s life story. He was brought up in a council flat on an estate in Stepney, east London. His grandfather was an armed robber and his grandmother, who also ran foul of the law, shared a prison cell with the model Christine Keeler, a central figure in the 1960s Profumo sex scandal. Streeting is gay and a devout Christian, a combination he says caused him difficulty by the time he won a place at Cambridge.

In politics, Streeting attracts admiration from those who see him as the moderate future of Labour, an effortless communicator — like Blair in the 1990s — who understands what it takes to win back the working-class voters who have deserted the party. “He doesn’t need a focus group to tell him what the public thinks because he feels it himself,” says Peter Mandelson, a co-architect of Blair’s New Labour.

But some on the left distrust, even loathe, Streeting and see his policies — he is bullish on policing and defence, relaxed towards the private sector — as too close to the Conservatives’. In his preferred uniform of navy suit, crisp white shirt, buffed black shoes and with his neatly side-parted hair — not yet showing any signs of grey — he exudes a managerial demeanour. “He would represent a return to full Blairism,” says one influential figure on the left. Another says if Streeting ever became Labour leader, he would purge the party’s fringes.

Streeting is well aware that Blair, not least because of his role in the Iraq war, remains a toxic figure for many in his party. Streeting opposed the war, but he says Blair did not act with malign intent and that the party would be better off leaving the trashing of Blair’s domestic record to the Conservatives. He objects to being labelled a “Blairite”. “There’s no future for the Labour party if it’s locked in a battle between two competing visions of the past,” he says. “I don’t like being pigeonholed.” But some Conservatives also believe Streeting is Labour’s future. “The next Labour prime minister won’t be Starmer,” says one Tory cabinet minister. “It will be Streeting.”

Wesley Paul William Streeting began his political journey in a very different place to Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s previous leader, and they arrived at very different destinations. Streeting grew up in public housing in an impoverished part of east London while Corbyn grew up in genteel rural surroundings in Yew Tree Manor in Shropshire. The two men never got on.

While Corbyn famously took his party leftward — in 2019 he claimed he had “won the arguments” before proceeding to lead Labour to its worst election defeat since 1935 — Streeting’s version of socialism is more pragmatic. It is rooted in his life experience, he tells me in a minibus en route to Israel’s national blood centre outside Tel Aviv. “There’s a fundamental driving mission, which is making sure that people from backgrounds like mine can achieve security in life and the kind of opportunities that people from more privileged backgrounds experience.”

Streeting’s two grandfathers, both named Bill, were key figures in his youth. His maternal grandfather, who spent time in prison for armed robbery, was familiar with the infamous East End Krays, Streeting says, but not part of their gang. He was “really well read and well informed” and engaged his grandson in lively discussions about religion and politics. “I went to a prison before I went to a university,” Streeting jokes. “I know which route I prefer.”

Streeting and fellow Labour MP Steve McCabe (second right) visiting Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem
Streeting and fellow Labour MP Steve McCabe (second right) visiting Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, as part of a fact-finding tour of Israel’s healthcare system © Tomer Ifrah

His maternal grandmother became embroiled in her husband’s crimes and ended up in Holloway jail, where she met Keeler. “They stayed in touch, they became friends,” Streeting says. His nan was released from prison to give birth to his mother at Whittington Hospital: “I think she was surrounded by prison staff.” His mother’s side of the family was leftwing, his grandmother joining picket lines at Wapping and lobbing stones at buses carrying “scab” workers to Rupert Murdoch’s print works. Years later, Streeting appeared in Murdoch’s rightwing Sun newspaper and tweeted a link to the article saying he would be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” – a Blair buzzphrase – to the disgust of some in his party.

Streeting’s paternal grandfather served in the second world war in the Royal Navy and later in the merchant navy before becoming a civil engineer. “He was the grandad I was closest to. He was a traditional working-class Tory.” The young Streeting spent every weekend with his grandfather, who “instilled in me an absolute love of learning”.

But Streeting did not become a Conservative. Growing up during the dying days of John Major’s Tory administration with Blair ascendant, he says, “there was an air of excitement about the country at the time”. He recalls Tory politicians “denigrating single-parent families like mine, which I took quite personally”. Streeting’s parents were teenagers when he was born. He has five brothers, a sister and a stepsister. He lived with his mother and later with his father, who sells cars for a living and is currently a “disaffected Tory”. Streeting recalls: “He wasn’t some kind of feckless absent dad.”

Streeting was also supported at school by teachers who “really looked out for me and encouraged me” and, he admits, “I was a bit of a teacher’s pet. That will come as no surprise to anyone.” He adds: “There was definitely bullying at my school, and I wouldn’t encourage bullying as a character-building experience.” He acquired “a working-class chip on my shoulder — I’m just not going to let posh people get ahead of me.” And he eventually won a place to study history at Selwyn College, Cambridge, by which point, by his own reckoning, he was “gobby and occasionally arrogant”. He went on to become president of the National Union of Students and a pathway into politics was clear.

In 2015, Streeting ran for Labour MP for Ilford North, successfully overturning a Tory majority. He won by just 589 votes. His confident media appearances and straight talk quickly garnered admirers across party lines. Starmer’s office now often turns to him to deliver the party message. Streeting, with his light cockney accent, frequent references to his background and avoidance of jargon, does not sound like a typical politician.

But one incident earlier this year underlined the contrast with Starmer. During an appearance on TalkRadio, Streeting was asked “Can a woman have a penis?” Transgender rights are a growing flashpoint in British politics. “Men have penises, women have vaginas; here ends my biology lesson,” Streeting declared. When the host Julia Hartley-Brewer started applauding him, he mused: “This is the end of my leftie street cred, if I had any in the first place.” Asked the same question in a previous interview, Starmer had squirmed: “I don’t think that discussing this issue in this way helps anyone.” Streeting says Johnson is trying to “stoke culture wars” and that Labour has to fight “the politics of division”. He adds that “being Christian and being gay equips me to instinctively understand some of these issues and to help me navigate them, but that doesn’t always mean I get it right”.

Streeting, who is a practising Anglican, says his faith is “about compassion, not walking by on the other side”. He says it caused serious problems when it came to his sexuality. “My faith was a really big obstacle to accepting myself,” he says, looking out at stationary Tel Aviv traffic. “It meant I didn’t come out until my second year at university, and it was largely faith that made that process very difficult. I spent many years choosing not to be gay. It was oppressive; it was like a straitjacket.” His family was supportive when he finally came out. Streeting and his partner, Joe Dancey, a communications consultant, have been together for 11 years. “Joe popped the question years ago,” he says, smiling. “It has been the longest engagement. I’m hoping to get married next year, but it has been ‘next year’ for a while now.”

Streeting is in Israel for a week, his itinerary taking him to laboratories and medical conferences a world away from the raucous political circus of Westminster. At the end of the day, Streeting returns to his seafront hotel near the Old North district. Our photographer Tomer wants to snap a few portraits on the beach, and Streeting expresses relief he doesn’t have to take his top off like some of the toned figures working out on the sand. “You want Pete for that,” he says, referring to Peter Kyle, shadow Northern Ireland secretary, with whom he shares an office at Westminster. They also share a passion for “modernising” their party, fighting off the far left and lamenting Britain’s exit from the EU.

Both men have carefully chosen when to avoid flexing in public. Streeting and Kyle did not take front bench roles during the Corbyn era, although Streeting claims he could have. “I knew what the Corbyn project was about,” he says. “I always thought that Jeremy Corbyn was unelectable and there was a fundamental moral objection to where he was on anti-Semitism.” The feeling was apparently mutual. Len McCluskey, a union baron who supported Corbyn, says that Streeting was part of “a dismal chorus whose every dirge makes winning a Labour government more difficult”. Corbyn ally John McDonnell says Streeting was and is “personally vituperative about Jeremy”.

Streeting was brought into the Labour frontline by Starmer in April 2020, when he succeeded Corbyn as Labour leader. A year later, Streeting received a phone call from his urologist informing him that tests, initially for kidney stones, revealed he had kidney cancer. He was on a campaign visit at the time, in a car park in Bury. Streeting describes the news as “a shit sandwich”: the consultant was “very clear about the fact that — although I had kidney cancer and that’s obviously shocking — they had caught it early”. Streeting’s prognosis was good, though he would need surgery to remove the kidney. His rise would have to be put on hold.

As a result of the diagnosis, Streeting says he experienced Britain’s public health system — free at the point of use — with all its infuriating contradictions. At times, his treatment was “Rolls-Royce” in its quality; at others, Streeting faced the frustrations affecting millions of Britons with cancer, whose treatment has been delayed or complicated by the impact of the pandemic on the NHS. Streeting’s answer to the NHS’s problems is “investment and reform”. He’s also broken a taboo on the left by saying that a Labour government would pay for people to be treated by private health providers.

Which is why Streeting is here. He’s come to see first-hand how the Israeli healthcare system employs technology — some of it not especially advanced — to cut costs and improve services. (Israel has universal healthcare supplemented by private insurance.) He watches enviously as staff at Magen David Adom, the country’s national emergency service, show him an app that allows people to instantly transmit photos of an accident scene or victim. “How long have you had this for?” Streeting asks. Twelve years, he’s told. In Israel, the wait time for an ambulance is on average eight minutes; in some areas in England, patients must wait an average of more than an hour after suffering a heart attack, according to the Health Service Journal. “Depressingly, from a UK point of view, what’s happening in Israel is at least a decade ahead of us,” he says.

Streeting is the most senior Labour figure to visit Israel since Corbyn’s leadership was plunged into an anti-Semitism scandal. A 2020 inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission concluded that anti-Semitism in the party could have been tackled more effectively “if the leadership had chosen to do so”. Streeting’s itinerary will also take him to see a Palestinian medical project. “Not only is it possible to be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel, it’s the only way to be pro-peace,” he says. “There is no alternative.”

During his visit, the Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is killed while reporting from the occupied West Bank. Later, Israeli police officers charge at Palestinian mourners carrying her coffin, scenes Streeting describes on Twitter as “absolutely awful and distressing”. The seemingly innocuous comment is greeted on social media by a wave of criticism of Streeting for being an apologist for Israel.

Some Labour members believe Streeting can never be the party’s leader because he is too divisive. Even Starmer, widely seen as a moderate, had to tack to the left to win the leadership, promising to continue pursuing some of Corbyn’s economic policies. Alan Simpson, a former leftwing Labour MP, says: “Wes is a good media performer, and much more accessible than Keir. The problem with Wes is he’s stuck in the past and the legacy of New Labour.” Owen Jones, a leftwing political columnist, says Streeting is “the commentators’ choice” but believes the party membership, whose ranks were swelled by several hundred thousand new supporters initially inspired by Corbyn, is too leftwing to back him for leader. “A Streeting Labour would just be Blairite revanchism,” he says. “The Blairite wing is now on the warpath. Under Wes they would talk about the Tory deficit and debt being too high, law and order, [and] social security in not very pretty terms.”

Mandelson, the Streeting supporter, counters that he leads “by values rather than ideology”. He adds: “That puts him absolutely in the mainstream of the British public. He’s not an all-things-to-all-people politician. He’s punchy, not glib. Some in the party may be reminded of an early Blair, but he’s not an identikit New Labour politician. He’s his own man.”

Sipping a beer at the hotel bar, overlooking the Mediterranean, Streeting says he’s not bothered by the leadership speculation. “I’m not just loyal to Keir Starmer,” he says, “I believe he is the best candidate for prime minister that any political party has fielded since Labour left office in 2010.” But by the time he has returned to the UK, The Observer newspaper is running a story about a March fundraising event hosted for Streeting and Labour MP Kim Leadbeater by Waheed Alli, a wealthy donor. Streeting’s critics claim the event was part of a campaign to build up a war chest for a future leadership bid. His allies deny this. But one shadow cabinet member says: “The gossip is that his ambition is pretty naked, much more so than others around him. And there’s something about his judgment. He likes to shoot from the hip. He’s almost too Blairite for the party as it is today.”

Streeting knows he has plenty of enemies. But he says he’s never had it easy. “For those of us who don’t come from money and connections, and that kind of influence by osmosis, you do have to work harder,” he says. “It’s like we run the same distance, but I had to jump hurdles to get there. That’s the analogy I use when I talk to kids from my background today. You might get knocked down, but you have to pick yourself up. You’ve just got to keep running the race. And in the end, clearing the hurdles will make you a stronger, more resilient athlete than if you’d just done a straight sprint without the hurdles.”

It is late, and Streeting and his team have headed to a hipster bar behind a plain garage door where the music is blaring and the beer flowing. It’s almost midnight, and I have to be up in four hours for my flight back to London. Streeting seems undimmed; he seems set for the long haul. As I get up to leave, he looks me over, smiles and says: “Weak.”

George Parker is the FT’s political editor. Jim Pickard is the FT’s chief political correspondent

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