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4 September 2023

Keir Starmer’s reshuffle was politically ruthless

The Labour leader has marginalised the soft left and promoted proud Blairites.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Some might question the wisdom of Labour stealing the headlines with a long-awaited reshuffle on a day when the news is dominated by school buildings literally crumbling on the Conservatives’ watch. Never interrupt your enemy when they are making a mistake, the saying goes – and ignoring warnings of the risks of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) in public buildings for years and then having to order emergency school closures right at the end of the summer holidays certainly counts as a mistake.

Nonetheless, Keir Starmer has chosen today, 4 September, as MPs return to Westminster from recess, to shake up his top team for the first time in two years. The headline change is the appointment of the deputy leader Angela Rayner as shadow levelling-up secretary, the role previously held by Lisa Nandy, and shadow deputy prime minister. Rayner, who was formerly shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, now has a major policy brief that covers a range of areas – from housing to social mobility – where the Tories are vulnerable. Rayner’s performances at PMQs show she is not afraid to go on the attack against the Conservatives, and she now has a high-profile platform from which to do so. 

By making Rayner the shadow deputy prime minister, Starmer has also confirmed that she would become deputy PM in a Labour government, something that was previously uncertain (former deputy leader Harriet Harman, for instance, did not serve as deputy PM under Gordon Brown). Though Rayner is no longer secretary of state for the future of work, she will also retain the employment rights brief (having recently insisted that Labour’s policy programme had not been watered down), a move designed to reassure trade unions. 

But while Rayner’s new role gives her greater visibility, it also distances her from the command centre of Starmer’s shadow cabinet. Relations between Starmer and his deputy have been strained during his leadership – in May 2021, a botched attempt to demote Rayner backfired and resulted in her being handed a panoply of new roles. The dynamic has clearly changed since then, as Labour has risen in the polls, and Starmer has established himself as a prime minister-in-waiting. 

[See also: What to expect from Angela Rayner as shadow levelling up secretary]

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Today’s reshuffle has allowed Starmer to sideline Rayner without explicitly demoting her – in fact, he has sweetened the pill by making her shadow deputy prime minister. But the Labour leader’s balancing act could also prove risky: the levelling-up brief will give Rayner ample opportunity to challenge the party’s spending plans and build alliances with powerful regional figures, such as Labour’s metro mayors, who share her frustrations with Rachel Reeves’s fiscal conservatism. 

Nandy, who represents the soft left of the party and who finished third in the 2020 leadership election, has been appointed the shadow cabinet minister for international development. This is an interesting brief: Boris Johnson abolished the Department for International Development (Dfid), bringing it under the remit of the Foreign Office in September 2020; Nandy’s equivalent in government, Andrew Mitchell, is not a secretary of state, though he does attend cabinet meetings. Starmer has previously said he intends to resurrect Dfid – and doing so would give Nandy full cabinet status. But her new role is certainly a lower-profile one, reflecting grumbles within Labour that Nandy has not made enough of the opportunities presented by the levelling-up brief.

Rayner’s previous role as shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, meanwhile, goes to Pat McFadden – “Labour’s great survivor”, as my colleague Rachel Wearmouth called Tony Blair’s former political secretary in her recent profile. McFadden, who also becomes Labour’s national campaign coordinator, amassed “extraordinary power” as Reeves’s deputy – power that will be cemented and bolstered by his promotion.

Other changes include the appointment of Steve Reed as the shadow environment secretary, replacing Jim McMahon who announced his resignation shortly before the reshuffle began. McMahon had been tipped for a demotion – his resignation letter cited health challenges, while Starmer’s response also referenced the “abuse” and “violent threats” the Oldham MP has suffered.

Though Reed, who was at one point tipped to replace Yvette Cooper as shadow home secretary, has not reached these heights, his new role will allow him to take the fight to the Tories over the sewage crisis. As with the urgent challenge of Raac in schools, sewage to Labour’s narrative of “broken Britain”: a country that is crumbling, both metaphorically and literally, after 13 years of Tory austerity and psychodrama.

Reed’s vacancy in the Justice Department has been filled by the rising star Shabana Mahmood. There are more promotions in line for other key Starmer allies from the party’s Blairite wing, such as Liz Kendall (shadow work and pensions secretary) and Peter Kyle (shadow science, innovation and technology secretary), and demotions for those deemed too quiet in their roles, like Kendall’s predecessor, the soft-left Jonathan Ashworth, who becomes shadow paymaster general, and Nick Thomas-Symonds, who moves from international development to become shadow minister without portfolio. 

As was predicted, Starmer has kept the figures responsible for Labour’s five key “missions” in post. The shadow chancellor (Reeves), shadow home secretary (Cooper), shadow health secretary (Wes Streeting), shadow education secretary (Bridget Phillipson) and the shadow climate change secretary (Ed Miliband) will continue to lead Labour’s agenda. Of these, the only role potentially in doubt was Miliband’s – his flagship £28bn-a-year green investment plan was scaled back in June in an effort to cement Labour’s economic credibility. But rumours of Miliband being sidelined by Starmer and Reeves persist.

So how bold was this reshuffle? The changes were as extensive as they could be without interfering with the party’s defining “missions”. Moving Rayner anywhere was a risk – one that could pay off if she uses her new brief to hammer the Tories over levelling up (having been distanced from central strategy). The changes reflect Starmer’s increased political strength: he has promoted trusted ideological allies and marginalised perceived underperformers.

[See also: Britain’s great tax con]

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