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26 April 2023

Keir Starmer faces an assortment of political woes

The potential veto of Sue Gray as his chief of staff is only the latest setback for the Labour leader ahead of the local elections.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Spare a thought for Keir Starmer, who is not having the dream run-up to the 4 May local elections that he would have liked.

First of all, he has had to contend with a fresh anti-Semitism row after Diane Abbott suggested Jewish people faced prejudice akin to “white people with points of difference” such as redheads. The former shadow home secretary has been suspended pending an investigation.

This morning, the New Statesman carries an interview with the former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who accuses Starmer of “intimidatory bullying” of Jeremy Corbyn, and makes the extraordinary claim that Labour members are more like likely to be disciplined for anti-Semitism “if you are a Jew than a gentile”.

Now it would appear that Sue Gray, the renowned Whitehall official that Starmer would like to hire as Labour’s chief of staff, may have her appointment blocked until after the next general election.

Her move into a party-political role attracted controversy because Gray led the independent inquiry into the partygate allegations against Boris Johnson‘s lockdown government, and previously ran the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team. The Sun reported on Monday evening (24 April) that senior government sources believe the appointments watchdog Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) could recommend a “cooling-off period” of two years before she can take another job.

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[See also: Why Keir Starmer is still struggling to cut through]

The Guardian wrote last night (25 April) that Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, is among those pushing for the appointment to be delayed. The report suggested that the two figures had clashed personally during her partygate investigation. Case, who had to recuse himself from leading it after allegations he had hosted an event during lockdown himself, is also accused of blocking Gray’s promotion to a more senior civil service role at a later date.

Labour has sought to make crime the main focus of its local elections campaign, with Starmer announcing yesterday that he would introduce a specific criminal offence for drink spiking. The row over Labour’s controversial Sunak attack ads on crime have proved something of a distraction, however, as Andrew Marr wrote about here.

Nonetheless, the party can be confident of major gains at the town-hall elections next month as Labour continues to hold a commanding lead in the polls. But as Ben Walker’s survey for the NS of Labour’s local representatives shows, the picture on the ground is more nuanced, and councillor candidates are somewhat ambivalent about the party’s chances. It suggests that, while Starmer has made significant inroads in the battle to win over former Tory voters, he has work to do when it comes to rallying Labour’s base.

Tonight, his beloved Arsenal take on Manchester City as the two top teams battle it out for the Premier League title. The Labour leader will no doubt be hoping his football team attracts some better headlines come tomorrow morning.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Why has Labour’s poll lead shrunk?]

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