When James Cleverly, the MP for Braintree, launched his brief bid for the Conservative leadership in 2019, he had an unusual message for his aides. If his long-shot attempt at the top job succeeded, he said, there would be no roles waiting for them in Downing Street. He would instead recruit openly, from across the ranks of the Tory party.
Most politicians aren’t quite as honest about their intentions at the start of their leadership campaigns. But the life of a successful party leader is marked by the painful shedding of the staff who have aided their progress. David Cameron once remarked that one of the hardest things about winning the Conservative Party leadership was disappointing hard- working volunteers and committed members of staff who had got him that far, but who lacked the “star quality” to get him into Downing Street.
The story of Keir Starmer’s leadership thus far is of his doomed attempt to defy that trend: to retain rather than discard his closest allies and aides. He made Morgan McSweeney – the man seen by many as the architect of his leadership victory – his chief of staff. Ben Nunn, his parliamentary adviser during his time as shadow Brexit secretary, became communications director. Jenny Chapman, the former MP for Darlington and one of Starmer’s closest allies in parliament, was given the job of political director.
In the past week, he has dispensed with the services of all of them. McSweeney has been shunted away from his role to advise on general election strategy; Chapman has been tasked with shadowing David Frost, the government’s chief Brexit minister, in the House of Lords; and Nunn has left to pursue other projects.
All three had been widely criticised. Labour MPs have become increasingly perplexed as to who, exactly, they should talk to in order to understand the view of the leader and the direction of the Starmer project. One MP recently told me that the process of adding a few words of loyal pro-Labour fluff to their regular weekly email to constituents had become as painful a process as their wisdom teeth coming through. It was impossible to find out what, if any message, they ought to be sharing with the voters, they complained – and that confusion is widely shared.
Criticism for that lack of grip has been directed at McSweeney, who has been working remotely for most of the past year – a set-up that many MPs regard as incompatible with the role of chief of staff, even in a pandemic. Others argue that Starmer’s most trusted confidant was not McSweeney but his nominal deputy Chris Ward – and that requests that could only be dealt with by Ward were being directed, fruitlessly, to McSweeney. (Ward, a long-time aide to Starmer, is tipped to be made chief of staff.)
Nunn had been blamed for a comms strategy that lacked discipline, and criticised for being remote and inattentive. One journalist complained that messaging him felt like trying to keep in touch with a particularly unreliable boyfriend. Labour MPs and shadow cabinet ministers, who rely on the communications director to signal the positions they can take in interviews, said that guidance was patchy or non-existent. Allies of Nunn insist his problem was that he inherited a bloated and dysfunctional press office and that most of his time was spent on fire-fighting rather than on communications.
As for Chapman, as political director she was the architect of both the disastrous by-election campaign in Hartlepool, and that in Batley and Spen, which essentially everyone in Labour expects the party to lose and lose badly. In Hartlepool, she championed the selection of Paul Williams, the former MP for Stockton South and a prominent Remainer, who was heavily defeated in May, in a historic win for the Conservatives. In Batley and Spen, she is blamed for not preventing the contest in the first place. It only arose because Tracy Brabin, the former MP, was selected as the party’s candidate for the West Yorkshire mayoralty. (Chapman had been urged by others on Labour’s National Executive Committee to do anything to make sure that Brabin was not shortlisted for the post.)
Whether or not the three feel hard done by, they were key members of an office that has alienated Labour MPs and diminished the standing of its leader among the commentariat and media. Changing the team may not be a sufficient preparation for what Starmer allies term a “soft reboot” of the party leadership, but it was certainly necessary. Even if the result in Batley is as bad as expected, there is no immediate threat to Starmer’s leadership: in part because he has appeased some of his critics by beginning to reform his office, but also because for the moment neither the left, the right, nor the centre of the party has an alternative candidate in place. The question, though, is whether the leader himself has the ability to inspire a change in his or his party’s fortunes.
Optimists believe that the source of Starmer’s problems is simple inexperience. While he was first elected in 2015, he had spent less time in the cut and thrust of party politics than almost any other MP in the Commons. In contrast, Cleverly, first elected to parliament at the same time as Starmer, had a long record in London and in Boris Johnson’s office. Cleverly already knew that part of effective leadership is ruthlessness – a lesson that Starmer may now be starting to learn. But pessimists believe that the problems run deeper: that the Labour leader lacks not just experience, but a defined political project. Acquiring a ruthless streak has bought Starmer time, but his survival rests on developing new political skills – and not just shedding underperforming aides in order to quieten his critics.
This article appears in the 23 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us