Keir Starmer has rewarded some of his earliest backers, as well as some of his highest-profile rivals, in an astute first set of appointments since becoming leader.
Oxford East MP Annelise Dodds, an early supporter of Starmer’s, and shadow chief secretary to the Treasury under Jeremy Corbyn, is promoted to shadow chancellor. While Dodds is not widely known outside of Westminster she is highly rated by Labour MPs and civil servants. Starmer will benefit from having a shadow chancellor with whom he is relatively politically well-aligned: a necessary but not sufficient condition for political success in opposition.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, MP for Torfaen since 2015, is made shadow home secretary. Though the promotion is meteoric in terms of cabinet rank, in practice, because the outgoing shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti sat in the House of Lords, Thomas-Symonds picked up extensive front-bench experience responding to Geoffrey Cox in the House of Commons.
Thomas-Symonds’ promotion rewards another backer, but one more identified with the party’s right than Dodds, while ensuring both a broad team and a loyal shadow home secretary. Starmer has taken a risk here: whatever position he adopts on immigration may be strongly divisive in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and he will be its sole owner, as his shadow home secretary is not – yet – a political force in his own right. He might yet regret not making Angela Rayner, the deputy leader, shadow home secretary: but as the deputy leader has a place in shadow cabinet by dint of the Labour rulebook, Starmer has gone for the safe option in giving her the role of Labour chair: she can act as an advocate for the party on the airwaves, but she won’t be at the epicentre of any policy rows between leader and deputy.
But Starmer has acted cleverly to build bridges with his rivals in the parliamentary party. Rachel Reeves returns from her role as chair of the business select committee to shadow Michael Gove at the cabinet office. This role is going to be very important, not just in terms of scrutinising the government’s Covid-19 response, but in relation to Labour’s Brexit strategy. Much of the Brexit trade talks are now the responsibility of Gove, not the International Trade Secretary Liz Truss, and Reeves, who has consistently shown the ability to master a brief, will be a big asset here. Her promotion is a major olive branch to the party’s right – Reeves nominated Jess Philips for the Labour leadership and has long been seen as one of the brightest minds on that wing of the party. It’s a useful signal that those who dissented, provided they work hard and constructively, will not be shunted into outer darkness.
Starmer has done the same in making Lisa Nandy shadow foreign secretary. The actual post is likely to be something of a non-job for the foreseeable future: the Covid-19 lockdown will continue to reduce the scope and scale of British foreign policy for some time, and in practice, the leader of the opposition always takes a lead when big foreign policy questions are decided. But it’s a glamourous title, which means that Labour can deploy one of its most assured communicators essentially at will on any number of topics: and is, again, a signal to the parliamentary party that Starmer’s door remains open to critics. Her presence, along with Dodds, ensures that the great offices of state remain gender-balanced and that Labour continues to have an ethnic minority MP in the inner circle.
With those balancing acts accomplished, Starmer has largely left himself free to reward loyalists, such as David Lammy, Chi Onwurah, Jonathan Reynolds and Jo Stevens when assembling the rest of his front bench.
There is just one piece of the puzzle outstanding: what role for the Corbynite left? Starmer has pledged to offer Rebecca Long-Bailey a post, but has also sent Ian Lavery and Jon Trickett to the back benches, along with Barry Gardiner, a politician from the soft left but one who established himself as Corbyn’s go-to defender on the airwaves. Will Long-Bailey be the last real survivor on the front bench – or will Starmer hand more posts to members of the 2017 and 2019 intake who backed her for the leadership? We’ll find out tomorrow.