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7 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 12:49pm

Keir Starmer is promising “change“ in the coming days. What will that look like?

Shadow cabinet members are expecting a reshuffle, but it's not clear whether the Labour leader will deliver the change many in the party really want. 

By Ailbhe Rea

What is Keir Starmer going to do now? The Labour leader has taken personal responsibility for “bitterly disappointing” election results in the Hartlepool by-election and in local council elections across England, promising to do “whatever is necessary to fix things”. “I will set out what change is needed over the next few days,” he said in a short interview to camera. 

So what is the Labour leader’s plan, amid furious calls for a change of strategy from both his left and his right? There are a few things. Starmer pointedly declined to rule out a shadow cabinet reshuffle in his interview, and shadow cabinet members are now expecting one imminently. The longstanding speculation around the future of Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor, has picked up again, as well as that around other members of the top team, and there are jitters on the Labour front benches tonight.

But Starmer will know that a shadow cabinet reshuffle is not the big change his critics, or indeed his fans, really want. Yes, there are plenty of Labour MPs and shadow cabinet ministers who will tell you privately that they don’t think this or that shadow cabinet member is pulling their weight. But no one thinks that the shadow cabinet membership is the main cause of Labour’s electoral woes. The shadow cabinet ultimately takes direction from Keir Starmer: a point made by figures on the right and left of the leader, and even by those who think a reshuffle would help a little bit.

The main thing that people in the party are hoping for is a change of the team of advisers around the Labour leader: from Ben Nunn, Starmer’s communications chief, to Morgan McSweeney, his chief of staff, to Jenny Chapman, the close aide and former Labour MP who is understood to have chosen Labour’s failed candidate in Hartlepool.  “I feel really sorry for him today,” one Labour source says, emphasising their loyalty to him as leader. “I am just worried about the advice he’s getting.”

But the main thing, on which the Labour leader was repeatedly questioned today, was on his vision for the party. That is the thing even the most loyal shadow cabinet members feel is lacking. You only had to watch Bridget Phillipson, a loyal member of the shadow cabinet and an early backer of Starmer’s leadership campaign, on the BBC earlier to see the problem: she was asked if she is personally confident that she knows what Starmer’s strategy is, and she skillfully dodged the question, suggesting that however much she would like to answer in the affirmative, she is unable to.

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Starmer is known to guard professional loyalties, from Nunn, his communications aide since his time as shadow Brexit secretary, to Chapman, a former colleague of his who lost her seat in 2019. The Labour leader has promised to unveil “change” in the coming days. But figures inside Labour are still waiting to discover how sweeping those changes will be, or if they are the ones they want.

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