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29 November 2021

Keir Starmer begins a reshuffle – and picks a fight

The Labour leader’s restructuring is an effort to finish what he started in May, when he unsuccessfully tried to sack his deputy.

By Ailbhe Rea

Keir Starmer has begun a surprise reshuffle of his shadow cabinet, and triggered yet another row with his deputy, Angela Rayner.

The Labour leader began to make changes to his top team this morning, after the Times reported last night that Starmer would hold a reshuffle this week. Starmer began the reorganisation, however, while Rayner was on stage at the Institute for Government, delivering what was intended to be a major keynote address announcing the Labour Party’s plans to tackle corruption within government. 

Those close to Rayner have made no secret of their frustration, telling the New Statesman that they were not made aware that the speech would clash with the reshuffle. This has prompted vicious counter-briefing, with one shadow cabinet opponent saying that “Angela [is] trying to confect a row. She knew this was coming and the timing.”

The reality is that there is no disagreement between Starmer’s team and Rayner’s team as to whether she was informed in advance: the Labour leader met with his deputy after her media round this morning, and before she went to the Institute for Government to deliver her speech. 

There is hostility, however, over what is being perceived in the Rayner camp as an attempt to undermine her intervention on corruption, and a frustration that she was not given any details of the changes that the party leader plans to make. It taps into a tension between the pair since Starmer’s last attempt at a reshuffle in May, when the Labour leader unsuccessfully tried to sack his deputy, instead ultimately giving her more jobs and conducting a more limited reshuffle than envisaged. 

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[See also: Exclusive: Tory MPs would be over £1m worse off in six months with Boris Johnson’s second job ban]

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Today’s reshuffle is Starmer’s effort to finish what he began then: not in terms of moving Rayner, but making wider changes to his top team. There is a desire to move shadow ministers who are thought to have been under-performing in their roles, amid a wider sense that the shadow cabinet is too big and too expensive to staff, with each shadow minister employing one, if not several, political advisers. The botched reshuffle in May saw more portfolios added with further costs for the party. It is likely that today will see a smaller top team emerge, if all goes to plan.

The big question is whether the Labour leader chooses to keep or sack the remaining “soft left” loyalists in the shadow cabinet who have failed to impress: most notably Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary who is a close ally of Starmer and similar to him politically, but who has faced criticism over a failure to meaningfully challenge the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. If Starmer does choose to move Thomas-Symonds, some will interpret that as a sign of a rightward shift. It may, however, be a sign of pragmatism over loyalty from a leader who has, in the past, struggled to part ways with those who have supported him. 

The last reshuffle took days amid Starmer’s stand-off with Rayner. Those close to him whisper that they are hoping for a more “efficient” experience this time. It will ultimately be the efficiency and effectiveness of this reshuffle that will be key to how this row with Rayner lands.

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