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10 May 2021updated 11 May 2021 10:14am

Do Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner realise how much they need each other?

A mystifying reshuffle has done little to suggest Starmer has a clear political vision for Labour.

By Stephen Bush

Keir Starmer has conducted a mystifying 37-hour reshuffle that has left Labour MPs bewildered and his authority diminished. The headline action: Angela Rayner moves from the role of party chair to shadow Michael Gove, while Anneliese Dodds is demoted from shadow chancellor to party chair. Rachel Reeves moves from her role shadowing Gove to shadow chancellor, while a host of MPs are promoted to the shadow cabinet in roles that do not exist as separate government departments. 

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

Let’s start where the reshuffle began: with the move of Rayner from the role of party chair and national campaign coordinator to the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the shadow secretary of state for the future of work and the shadow first secretary of state. As deputy leader, Rayner is entitled to a seat at the shadow cabinet or, on the rare decades when Labour is in office, the Cabinet proper. Her previous role of party chair and nominal one of national campaign coordinator in theory meant her influence could range across all policy – but the nebulous nature of the roles meant that Starmer could contract or expand her reach at will. 

[See also: Keir Starmer’s sacking of Angela Rayner has plunged Labour into an avoidable crisis]

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Now she has a formal role. Because of Boris Johnson’s distaste for the challenges of administration and the relative lack of ideological direction from Downing Street as a result, many of what we would usually regard as the core functions of the Prime Minister are performed by Michael Gove. That means Rayner can still work across the whole of the policy piece, but without the ability of Starmer to contract or expand her reach at will. 

If you believe Team Starmer’s widely-briefed account of the last 37 hours, they have voluntarily exchanged a situation where they could contain Rayner if she made mistakes or caused them difficulties, to one in which they cannot contain her or easily duplicate her functions elsewhere. In addition, they did so while significantly fattening the number of shadow secretaries of state, when one of the aims of this reshuffle was to thin the herd of special advisers to cut costs. In a political first, that’s a situation where it would be more damning if you believed the case for the defence rather than the prosecution. 

That there are competing claims flying between the two camps is something that has perplexed Starmer’s closest parliamentary allies. Don’t forget that the MPs who are the most committed to Starmer are overwhelmingly likely to have backed Rayner for the party leadership. There are some MPs to Starmer’s right who backed him but not Rayner, but largely out of a sense of expediency, and some MPs to Starmer’s left who backed Rayner but not him. But for the most part, the MPs who actually believe in the Starmer project are keen supporters of Rayner, and vice versa. 

The dispute seems to be largely personal, with much of the aggro at a staff level. Starmer’s allies feel that while Rayner has backed him in every vote on the party’s ruling national executive committee, she has been reluctant to get involved in a big policy brief, and that her team spends more time thinking about the next leadership race than the next general election. Rayner’s team feel that Starmer’s team are high-handed, that promises are not kept and that there is insufficient appreciation for the fact Rayner delivered for him on the NEC, on everything from his preferred general secretary to action on antisemitism.

[See also: Labour is too weak to win and too strong to die]

That reality is one reason why, for all it is Rayner’s team who feel – in my view rightly – that they have won out from the reshuffle, they need Starmer as much as he needs them.  Strip away the personal politics and they have the same base of support in the parliamentary Labour party, and close to the same politics. There is no path to success for the Starmer project that does not rely on a close working relationship with Angela Rayner, but also, no plausible route to a Rayner leadership that does not run through an at least partially successful Starmer project. Given everything Starmer himself has said and everything his close allies have said about his politics, there is, at present, no available candidate in the parliamentary party whose politics are closer to his own should he for one reason or another be unable to lead the Labour party any longer. 

That Starmer does not seem to understand that part of his job is balancing his immediate political project with the understandable ambitions of his frontbench team speaks to the wider anxiety that the parliamentary Labour party has about the events of the weekend: that he at his core does not really “have” politics in a recognisable sense, that he is (as an MP who had never held a properly political job until he was elected as an MP in 2015) a neophyte learning in the ropes, and that he has little in the way of direction. 

That’s one reason why, despite the fact that this reshuffle saw Rachel Reeves (who most on the Labour right see as one of their brightest and best) promoted to the role of shadow chancellor, the Labour right is no happier this morning than the left or the centre. They don’t think this is a sign that Starmer has their politics or aims. They think it’s a sign of a lack of grip and direction: and that Reeves faces the challenge of a lifetime, and quite possibly an impossible one, in providing that direction in her new role as shadow chancellor. 

[See also: How Labour’s Hartlepool defeat reveals its English problem]