There is a saying in Labour circles that the most powerful thing in the shadow cabinet is the eyebrow of Pat McFadden. Should a frontbencher have an idea which causes the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury to quizzically raise said eyebrow, then, it is claimed, they should abandon all hope. “If you say spending three times he apparates with a scythe,” Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, quipped recently.
Rachel Reeves’s second-in-command – he took up his current post in 2021 – is a veteran not only of Tony Blair’s era but of John Smith’s. Having been at the centre of power throughout Labour’s last period in office, McFadden’s intellect, judgement and connections are a valuable resource as Keir Starmer’s relatively inexperienced team prepares for government. One source described McFadden as a “behind-the-scenes operator” for Labour moderates “who has accumulated extraordinary power” over policy and strategy.
McFadden, 58, is the son of a builder and a children’s home worker, who were Irish language speakers from Co Donegal. The Catholic family had moved to Paisley, Renfrewshire, by the time McFadden, the youngest of seven, was born. Education was his route out of poverty; he studied politics at Edinburgh University. “He is of that generation that was politicised during the Thatcher years, when working-class people felt themselves to be under attack,” said one ally.
After chairing Scottish Labour Students he was recruited as a researcher by Donald Dewar, Labour’s Scottish affairs spokesman, before being poached by Smith, the party leader, to be his speechwriter. When Smith, a passionate pro-European, died of a heart attack in 1994, McFadden moved to work for Blair and was crucial in negotiations with trade unions as the leadership reformed clause IV of Labour’s constitution (which theoretically committed the party to public ownership of industry).
Friends describe McFadden’s political identity as “interventionist New Labour”, arguing that those who cast him as a pure Blairite ignore the “broader and richer tradition” he emerged from. “I would actually say he is a Smithite,” said a source who knows him well. “He believes that you should pragmatically deploy state power for political outcomes.”
McFadden remained an adviser to Blair after Labour’s 1997 landslide election victory, becoming the prime minister’s political secretary in 2002, which meant he was immersed in the “TB-GB” conflict between Blair and Gordon Brown. “I always felt Pat got it worse, because he was from Scotland but not in Gordon’s camp,” said an insider.
Some believe that McFadden’s entry into frontline politics was delayed by the tensions between No 10 and No 11. He was asked by Blair to stand aside in the 1997 Paisley South by-election to make room for Douglas Alexander, a future cabinet minister and ally of Brown.
McFadden eventually became the MP for Wolverhampton South East in 2005. Before that, however, he was critical to Blair’s operation, having been assigned the devolution brief after Labour created the Scottish Parliament in 1999. He was dispatched to Islamabad, Pakistan, after 11 September 2001 to co-ordinate international communications.
“He [McFadden] has an unassuming manner and a diffidence which is unusual in modern politics and probably means he is often underestimated,” said Alastair Campbell, Blair’s press secretary at the time. “He is calm under pressure and able to assess things calmly even when the subject is highly emotional. He was essential to me at times because he is very good with words and I would often call on him to help me out with speech drafts and articles.”
McFadden’s wife, Marianna, worked at No 10 during the same period as Labour’s chief of staff. She remained a party official during Brown’s leadership and Ed Miliband’s, but left when Jeremy Corbyn became leader. She returned to join Starmer’s operation in 2022 as deputy campaign director to Morgan McSweeney after six years working for the Tony Blair Institute.
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After becoming an MP McFadden served in the Cabinet Office and in 2009 became deputy to Peter Mandelson following his appointment as business secretary in Gordon Brown’s cabinet. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, steel-making in the north was hit particularly hard, including at Sheffield Forgemasters and Teesside Steelworks. He and Mandelson attempted to revive the UK’s industrial strategy, a policy area neglected by Blair, and stem the losses of manufacturing with limited state intervention. A new British industrial strategy, in response to President Joe Biden’s dramatic green subsidies, will be a crucial part of Labour’s programme at the next general election.
McFadden remained on Labour’s frontbench after Brown lost power, most notably as Ed Miliband’s shadow Europe minister. As a passionate internationalist he foresaw some of the obstacles the Remain side would face in the Brexit referendum, warning against a “campaign of the elite” and that David Cameron’s “quiet resignation” to the Conservative right could leave the campaign vulnerable to Brexiteers.
McFadden initially remained shadow Europe minister under Corbyn but was sacked in January 2016 for “disloyalty” after a Commons statement on the 2015 Paris attacks in which he condemned “the view that sees terrorist acts as always being a response or a reaction to what we in the West do”. His remarks, prompted by a Stop the War Coalition article, were viewed as an unashamed challenge to Corbyn’s authority.
McFadden’s exit triggered a series of protest resignations, including those of Jonathan Reynolds and Kevan Jones. The moment is viewed by some as the first step towards Owen Smith’s unsuccessful leadership challenge a few months later.
“He knew where it would end and chose to focus on his constituency rather than attempting to moderate Corbynism,” observed one source. “Some thought Jeremy could be developed. Pat sat that period out.”
McFadden returned to the frontbench as shadow economic secretary to the Treasury after Starmer became Labour leader in 2020 and was promoted to his current role in November 2021. Starmer is said to regularly seek McFadden’s counsel and spend more time with him than almost any other frontbencher. The pair are of the same generation and share a love of football (McFadden is a Celtic fan, Starmer an Arsenal one).
“He plays up to the dour Scot caricature exterior but he is not one of those politicians constantly complaining about problems. He tries to think through ways of addressing them,” said Campbell, perhaps underlining why Starmer and McFadden are close. “He is very smart, has a sharp political mind, really strong values, and is a team player. I’ve noticed how silent the Commons seems to be when he speaks. I think the cleverer Tories recognise that Pat has a really acute political intelligence.”
McFadden’s fiscal disciplinarianism often puts him in conflict with colleagues. One shadow minister crudely remarked that he is, “like most Scots, tighter than a duck’s arse”. He and Reeves are sometimes mocked for eating sandwiches prepared at home and brought to work in Tupperware.
“He can tell demanding, ambitious, younger politicians why some spending commitments can’t be agreed to, because he can draw on his long political history and cite past examples,” said one insider.
Some claim his role has put him at odds with Miliband, now the shadow climate change secretary, over Labour’s £28bn-a-year green investment plan. Both sides deny this, insisting the pair are detail-oriented individuals who have forged a consensus on green subsidies.
Allies credit McFadden with “openness and empathy” and with nurturing talent. He has a close relationship with Reeves, who is credited with boosting Labour’s economic approval ratings, and other frontbenchers such as Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary.
“He is very sparing in his praise,” said one source. “What he gives Rachel is the confidence that he will handle his brief and not have a hidden agenda.”
McFadden is also viewed as one of the leaders of the party’s “Ming vase” brigade (an allusion to Roy Jenkins’s description of Blair before the 1997 election as “a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor”). This tendency believes Labour should be cautious on economic policy for fear of jeopardising its electoral chances. McSweeney and others, it is said, would prefer Labour to be bolder.
How such tensions are resolved will be crucial as the party prepares for next year’s general election. But what is clear is that McFadden is destined to remain at Starmer’s top table should Labour return to government.
John McTernan, who succeeded McFadden as political secretary at No 10, notes that he has been a player in every major internal battle since the 1980s and that it is “to his great credit” that he has survived. “Pat is now probably the most influential politician that you have never heard of.”
[See also: Labour’s immigration opportunity]