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29 November 2021

Keir Starmer’s new-look shadow cabinet is less than the sum of its parts

Something doesn’t make sense here.

By Stephen Bush

Keir Starmer has removed underperforming shadow cabinet ministers and rewarded his biggest hitters – but the resulting opposition front bench looks to be less than the sum of its parts.

It’s an interesting reshuffle, in that it’s easy to see the argument for the exits (Nick Thomas-Symonds has failed to make anything resembling an impact as shadow home secretary, Emily Thornberry is forever associated in voters’ minds with her ill-advised tweet in the 2014 Rochester by-election, Kate Green has been surprisingly ineffective at shadow education, while Ed Miliband has clashed repeatedly with both of Starmer’s shadow chancellors) and for the promotions (Louise Haigh has been an incredibly effective presence in the Northern Ireland brief, Wes Streeting has been a constant nuisance to the Conservatives as shadow secretary, and Bridget Phillipson has been a consistent advocate for the leadership on the airwaves). 

But it’s harder to see the case for where the promoted and moved have gone. Crafting a distinctive brief for Ed Miliband on climate change and net zero draws brilliantly on both his political passions and his experience in government: but net zero is an objective that reaches across government, and will surely mean that Miliband has many more confrontations to come with Rachel Reeves. As for Thornberry: personally, I am dubious in the extreme that a 2014 tweet figures highly in the mind of any voter anywhere who isn’t, to put it mildly, overinvested in politics. But you surely either take the view that she is one of Labour’s best operators and parliamentary performers and stick her in a big role where she can do damage to the Tories, or you take the view that she is politically damaging and therefore you send her to the back benches and outer darkness. What you don’t do is try to have it both ways by putting her in a relative backwater like shadow attorney general.

Putting Phillipson, Jonathan Ashworth and Streeting at Education, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Health makes sense: these are the departments where a Labour opposition ought to be putting the Conservatives under pressure. But given that Streeting is a long-term advocate of abolishing tuition fees, Phillipson is a keen defender of a generous welfare state, and Ashworth has had a good pandemic, it might have made more sense for Phillipson to go to the DWP, Ashworth to stay at Health and Streeting to shadow Education. If there is a way to discomfort the government using the shadow transport brief, Haigh is the best politician to find it. But it feels like a too-clever-by-half move when the low-hanging fruit of “just make Louise Haigh shadow home secretary” was there to be taken.

And as for the shadow home brief: removing Thomas-Symonds is obviously the right call. Bringing Yvette Cooper back to the opposition front bench is obviously an upgrade in the position. Nonetheless, I think making her shadow home secretary is the political equivalent of junk food: a lot of people will praise it, it will feel good momentarily, but it’s a mistake. Why?

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Because Cooper has proved herself to be a very effective opponent of the government as chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, and her replacement there is a decision for the whole House, not for Starmer alone. Making her shadow home secretary means returning Cooper to a post where her record under Miliband was mixed. The secretary of state she shadowed became both the longest-serving home secretary and prime minister! She was much more effective at the select committee, both in keeping important issues on the front pages and in bringing down Amber Rudd. There is no guarantee that Cooper’s replacement as chair will be as good in the role as Cooper, and no guarantee, either, that Cooper’s second stint as shadow home secretary will have a happier ending than the first.

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It may be that Starmer’s new shadow cabinet proves to be more effective in practice than it looks in theory. Or it may be that in 2022 he is forced into another reshuffle to get his team in fighting shape.

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