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  1. Politics
19 June 2015

The shadow chancellor is the real deputy. Who will it be?

Rachel Reeves, Chris Leslie and Chuka Umunna are the leading candidates. 

By George Eaton

The concurrent Labour leadership and deputy leadership elections mean that the focus has been on the possible pairings that could result (most notably the all-male team of Andy Burnham and Tom Watson). But there has been much less interest in the question of who will become shadow chancellor – the real deputy. 

It is the leader and their shadow chancellor who function as a pair: Blair and Brown, Cameron and Osborne, Miliband and Balls. After the leader, the shadow chancellor is the most senior member of the frontbench and the figure through whom all policy must pass. By contrast, the post of deputy leader is a largely party-facing role that confers little true power on its holder (a source of frustration to Harriet Harman, who was made shadow culture secretary in 2011 as consolation). The ever-more dominant position of George Osborne and the epic responsibilities of the Treasury mean that his opponent will incur far more scrutiny than the next Labour deputy leader. Who will it be?

Should Andy Burnham win, it is Rachel Reeves who will take on the post. The shadow work and pensions secretary, who gave birth to her second child earlier this week (to the amazement of her colleagues, she was still responding to constituents the day before), was one of the most senior figures to nominate Burnham. In return, the Labour leadership candidate effectively anointed the former Bank of England economist as his shadow chancellor by asking her to lead his campaign’s economic work. Reeves, who is renowned for her prodigious memory, would ensure gender balance at the top of the party. 

In contrast to Reeves, Chris Leslie, the current holder of the post, nominated Yvette Cooper. Leslie, who served as Ed Balls’s deputy as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury (and backed him for the leadership in 2010) is increasingly admired as a confident and fluent media peformer. His reasurring manner would be an asset to Labour as it seeks to repair its wrecked economic reputation. 

Should Liz Kendall prevail, one obvious candidate would be Chuka Umunna. The shadow business secretary, who endorsed her after withdrawing from the leadership race, has spoken often of the need to rebuild the party’s fiscal credibility and to promote wealth creation. As one of the Labour politicians the Tories fear most, he would be viewed as a tougher opponent by Cameron and Osborne. But the passionate pro-European is widely believed to be eyeing the post of shadow foreign secretary ahead of the EU referendum.

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Should Umunna decline the job, Kendall could stick with Leslie or reward another of her supporters such as Tristram Hunt or Pat McFadden. Alternatively, as an act of unity, she could appoint Cooper, a trained economist and former chief secretary – should her rival wish to remain in the shadow cabinet. Burnham, however, would not be in contention for the job. The shadow health secretary was briefly considered by Miliband for the post but was ruled out on the grounds that “Andy can’t do maths”. He and Kendall are also said by one source to simply “hate each other”. 

Whoever wins the job, there is no more important appointment that the next leader will make. The contenders’ respective merits deserve far greater attention than at present.  

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