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6 December 2023

How Lisa Nandy turned demotion to her benefit

With power in sight, the shadow international development minister is helping define Labour’s global message.

By Freddie Hayward

Lisa Nandy’s demotion in September to the shadow cabinet’s fringe – from levelling up to international development – left her with a choice. She could refuse the job in protest at her treatment or suck up the humiliation and press on. It was a mark of Keir Starmer’s authority and the allure of government that she chose the latter option. Thirteen years out of power has left Labour MPs hungry for one of the 109 ministerial positions dotted around Whitehall.

Nandy has faced this choice before. In 2016, she joined the exodus from the shadow cabinet to run Owen Smith’s doomed attempt to usurp Jeremy Corbyn as party leader. The next year Nandy said she wanted to return to the front bench but Corbyn would not comply. Her decision meant that she spent four years on the back benches. “She came to regret it,” a close colleague told me. “Watching Emily [Thornberry] and Keir [Starmer] rise made her realise it is better to be on the inside.”

Contrast that experience with Nandy’s decision to stay in the shadow cabinet this time. Since her appointment in October, Nandy has already met with her French and German counterparts, and discussed vaccines with Bill Gates. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are, I’m told, helping to organise meetings. “She recognises there’s a lot to do with development and is really getting her teeth stuck into it. Her and David [Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary] get on very well,” said one Labour aide. “She’s putting her head down and getting on with the job,” said another.

Last week she flew to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city, for her first full trip abroad in her new role. Over three days, she toured women’s and girls’ medical centres with the British high commissioner, and met Zambian government officials to discuss healthcare and debt restructuring – the sort of trip she could do only rarely when she was shadow foreign secretary because of Covid.

[See also: Kate Forbes: The rooted nomad]

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Working closely with Lammy – her replacement and now her boss, the Lord Cameron to her Andrew Mitchell – she is writing Labour’s international development strategy. Reversing Boris Johnson’s 2020 merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office won’t happen though. And while a return to spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid remains an ambition, fiscal constraints make it unlikely. Rather, the focus will be rebuilding relationships with the Global South, which uncertainty over access to Covid vaccines strained. “We are very conscious that Britain and some of its allies have lost a lot of influence with the Global South and between each other,” an aide close to Keir Starmer said. “She is key [to fixing that].”

But it was the war in Gaza that gave Nandy an opportunity to move from the periphery of the inner circle to its middle ground. She is invited to the daily 9am meetings that are held to discuss Labour’s response to the conflict, with Starmer, Lammy and senior advisers. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza has made her connections with the aid sector more useful to the Labour leader. Her private appeal for a greater emphasis on humanitarianism in Starmer’s Chatham House speech at the end of October was heeded, I’m told.

This represents a shift in Nandy’s standing after her demotion, which was the latest deterioration in her relationship with the party leader. Remember that Nandy stood against Starmer in the leadership election in 2020. Some who viewed the contest as a chance to reclaim the party from the left thought it an indulgence that risked letting Rebecca Long-Bailey – the Corbynite flag-bearer – win. 

After he won, Starmer kept Nandy close by giving her the Foreign Office brief – a move reminiscent of Theresa May’s treatment of Boris Johnson. One year later, the perception among some insiders was that Nandy was manoeuvring for the leaderhip after Labour’s defeat in the Hartlepool by-election, a loss billed as potentially fatal for Starmer’s position. But he survived, and in the subsequent reshuffle demoted Nandy to levelling-up secretary. “That demotion wasn’t entirely a demotion, it was a shift to a domestic role, but she didn’t grab it,” a shadow cabinet member said.

Nandy seems anxious to make a better impression this time around. With Labour 20 points ahead in the polls and heading for Whitehall, she is no longer immediately destined for a great office of state. Instead, she is entering government without a department of her own. But she is influencing policy in a way that she could not have on the backbenches. On top of that, promotion to a more powerful seat around the cabinet table is more likely when you’re already there. “You know how governments go,” one insider said. “People move around all the time. She has kept herself in the mix for other jobs as well.” Others speculate her decision has also put her in a better position to aim for the top job – whenever a vacancy might appear. As one shadow cabinet member put it: “She’s still well-placed for the next leadership election.”

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s economy speech offered more questions than answers]

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