It is thought to have concerned the party’s “missions” for government and Rayner was apparently furious at being excluded. “They are basically trying to lock her in a cupboard,” said one Labour source of the alleged tensions between Rayner and the leader’s team, before adding that she was overheard complaining at Labour’s headquarters on Blackfriars Road in Southwark, south London.
Rumours of Rayner’s closeness, or lack thereof, to Starmer’s inner circle surface periodically, as do claims of factional warfare within Labour’s ranks and of an imminent shadow cabinet reshuffle. “This is a critical six months for Labour,” said another insider. “It will be a make-or-break conference [in October]. Starmer has to define himself and what Labour stands for.”
This inevitably means greater pressure on all of the party’s frontbench and, perhaps inevitably, much jostling for position as a general election draws closer.
Rayner, 43, emerged strengthened from the reshuffle that followed Labour’s defeat to the Conservatives in the May 2021 Hartlepool by-election. Starmer removed her from the roles of party chair and national campaign co-ordinator but Rayner successfully orchestrated a revolt that forced Starmer to placate her. He awarded her the new roles of shadow secretary of state for the future of work, shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and shadow Cabinet Office minister. (“The more titles he [Starmer] feeds her, the hungrier she is likely to become,” Boris Johnson quipped at Prime Minister’s Questions.)
Since Rayner’s role as shadow Cabinet Office minister concerns cross-government business, any frustration she might feel at being excluded from key meetings is understandable. Starmer’s five missions for government focus on long-term ambitions and how Whitehall could be reformed to achieve them.
“I think she wanted that role [shadow Cabinet Office minister] because it cuts across everything but they [the Labour leadership] keep finding new ways to say that it isn’t her brief,” said an MP close to Rayner who claims the deputy leader is being frozen out in an “insidious” and “gradual” way.
Others strongly deny there is any tension between Rayner and her senior colleagues, citing the high priority attached to Labour’s workers’ rights agenda. The party has promised full employment rights for all workers from day one in a job, the abolition of zero-hours contracts and “fire and rehire”, and a guaranteed entitlement to flexible working.
There are some on Labour’s left who fear that this agenda – the New Deal for Workers – could be diluted in advance of the next election. Paul Nowak, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), told a Parliamentary Labour Party meeting this week: “While any serious government in waiting needs to engage business, it also has to face down the business lobby when it gets it wrong. There would have been no minimum wage if employers’ organisations had got their way after 1997, no equal rights for agency workers, no rights to limit unsafe working hours – rights we now all take for granted, and which helped us win elections, but which some business organisations complained long and bitterly about.”
Starmer and Rayner regularly campaign together and most within the party believe they complement one another. Starmer, a KC and former director of public prosecutions, reassures swing voters, it is said, while Rayner, a left-leaning former Unison shop steward, rallies Labour’s traditional industrial base. (In reference to the party’s former deputy prime minister and fellow trade unionist, Rayner once joked that she was “John Prescott in a skirt”.)
There were tensions between Rayner and Labour’s right last year after her partner, Sam Tarry MP, Jeremy Corbyn’s former campaign director, was deselected as the party’s parliamentary candidate in Ilford South. More recently, however, it was thought that relations had improved, with insiders crediting Rayner with reconciling trade unions such as Aslef, which came close to ending its affiliation with Labour after Starmer told MPs in August 2022 that they should not appear on rail strike picket lines. “Everything she says at NEC [National Executive Committee] meetings is supportive and upbeat,” said one source, who reports that Rayner does not appear to be at odds with colleagues.
Allies and sceptics alike call Rayner “naturally charismatic”, an effective campaigner and an essential part of Labour’s coalition. But it has long been anticipated that Starmer will reorganise his team, not least because Rishi Sunak’s Whitehall restructure means the opposition frontbench does not mirror the government’s. Insiders also fear that delaying a reshuffle could hinder Labour’s preparations for government. Could Starmer give one of Rayner’s roles to an MP more aligned with his politics?
“I think the chances of Angela being moved from her Cabinet Office role are minuscule,” said one ally, who claimed that tales of divides between the Labour leader and the party’s deputy are overblown. “I don’t doubt there are people in the leader’s office who don’t want her [Rayner] to exist. She can speak to Keir whenever she wants and she speaks her mind. Is she in every policy or strategy meeting? No, but then neither are most people.”
Friends of Rayner say her direct mandate from party members has always frustrated some ambitious colleagues. “They are jealous because she has that unique position,” said one insider.
Her regular appearances at the dispatch box, including at Prime Minister’s Questions, and on the media suggest that she is not being hidden, but allies say Rayner is rarely given credit for policy victories. They also point to long-standing relationships with senior trade unionists, such as Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, and Frances O’Grady, the former head of the TUC, but note that Rayner’s reach, paradoxically, weakens her.
“No one could actively go to war with her, because she is more popular with some parts of the party than Keir is, so they just subtly carve her out,” said one Labour MP. “Everything she has ever achieved has been through building relationships with stakeholders, which is a very different thing to this top-down, super-managerialist approach that the leader’s office is taking. They have this iron grip on all of the decision-making.
“But the question about all this power is how do you even wield it? She could burn everything down if she wanted to. It’s within her gift to do it, but she obviously doesn’t want to because she’s a Labour Party loyalist. I get the sense she is biding her time.”
The Conservatives are keenly aware of the potential for a split. Oliver Dowden, the Deputy Prime Minister recently taunted Rayner at the dispatch box with a quip that he did not need to search her WhatsApp messages to know that “there is no communication between her and the leader of her party”.
Both Rayner and Starmer remain focused on securing power after 13 years of Conservative rule. But as the election draws closer, will the battle to shape Labour’s manifesto force them apart?