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28 April 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 2:05pm

First Thoughts: “Nice” Anneliese Dodds, repositioning Reeves, and watching Belfast from afar

Rumours about Keir Starmer wanting to sack his shadow chancellor have been circulating for months. Why isn't anyone setting the record straight?

By Ailbhe Rea

Is Keir Starmer planning to sack Anneliese Dodds? Despite everything else going on in politics at the moment, that question crops up in almost every conversation I have around Westminster, months after initial speculation began. “Aw, Anneliese is so nice,” these conversations tend to start, with a slightly pitying tone – before the person, often a Labour colleague, proceeds to dissect her performance as shadow chancellor to date, usually lamenting that she isn’t communicating Labour’s vision. “She’s so smart, too,” they add. Dodds’s future is everybody’s favourite topic, a Westminster guilty pleasure.

Cut-through is not necessarily a problem: George Osborne didn’t have it as shadow chancellor, nor did Philip Hammond as chancellor. The real weakness of Dodds’s shadow chancellorship is that this speculation has been allowed to continue. She should have put a stop to it months ago, whether by intervening herself, via her advisers, or through Starmer. His eventual crackdown was too soft and too late, and certainly hasn’t stopped the rumblings.

Unpolitical politics

I find Dodds a fascinating case study in how power accrues around, or seeps away from, a politician, particularly a “nice woman”, who to date has made her career with simple kindness and intelligence, and no scheming. It is an approach that led her to be elected president of the Oxford University Student Union and to win the highly contested Labour selection for the safe seat of Oxford East, and has carried her as far as the shadow chancellorship only a few years after entering parliament.

When I interviewed her upon her appointment by Starmer a year ago, I found that she inspired genuine warmth from colleagues across a deeply divided party after the Corbyn years. That was an apparent strength, but does someone with no enemies in the Labour Party have distinctive enough politics to survive, I wondered? A year on, I am following the case with interest, waiting for an answer as to whether a “nice” – and, yes, very smart – woman can survive on the front line of Labour politics.

Starmer’s choice

Rachel Reeves is touted as favourite to replace Dodds, if such a sacking were to occur. Having been given a relatively marginal role in Starmer’s shadow cabinet, Reeves has manoeuvred into a pivotal position, leading Labour’s most prominent work on Tory cronyism. She is understood to have the ear of the Labour leader, and her prominence – she is often by his side – has prompted colleagues to express uneasiness at how Starmer has allowed her to “openly audition” for Dodds’s job.

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Whether Starmer sticks with Dodds or opts for Reeves will be revealing. He and Dodds share a political outlook, and she shields him from some criticisms from the left of the party. If he stands by her, Starmer will indicate that he is sure of himself, his politics and his project. But Reeves could add verve and direction to Starmer’s leadership, even if she is notably to his right.

That would be a more interesting choice for those looking on: an admission that Starmer is less political than he professes and that his project has been lacking in direction. Replacing Dodds with Reeves would be admitting that there’s a problem with his leadership – though not necessarily a problem any shadow chancellor could fix.

Far from home

When violence erupted in Northern Ireland several weeks ago, I found my commentary unexpectedly in demand. Only Eddie Mair asked how it felt to be from Belfast but watching from afar. I said it felt sad and strange to see one of the pink buses I used to take into town in flames, petrol-bombed by a teenager, and found there was a lump in my throat. I think Mair is a master interviewer.

[See also: The DUP’s crisis won’t end with Arlene Foster’s leadership]

Creature of the dark

We’re finding the skeletons in the Conservative closet at the moment, but I like to boast that I found the first one. At a party at the Conservative conference in 2019, a friend invited me to join her for a cigarette, so I went to get my coat. I stumbled in the dark over handbags and coats towards the back of the cloakroom, looked up, and there he was: Dominic Cummings in the shadows, deep in conversation. 

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This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas