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The Angela Rayner tax row spells real danger for Labour

It may be Tory deflection, but the story’s chief target is Keir Starmer: can he be portrayed as weak and hypocritical?

By Andrew Marr

What is the Angela Rayner story about? “Pure politics” – though there’s no such thing, it’s an oxymoron. It’s about revenge, hypocrisy and condescension. On the facts, the tax expert Dan Neidle has given New Statesman online readers a clear and neutral explanation. He concludes that Labour’s elected deputy leader failed to understand the rules in her initial response about why she had not paid capital gains tax on the sale of a former council house in 2007.

He gives various possible explanations about why she thinks she owes no tax – he estimates any potential liability to be “no more than £3,500” – and gives her what I would describe as a cautious benefit of the doubt.

But what is keeping this story running is that it revolves around her complicated living arrangements, and whether she has been telling the truth. When she was married to Mark Rayner, where was her real home? Was it where she said it was? Her former neighbour Sylvia Hampson has been widely quoted describing her as “an effing liar” on that. A former aide, Matt Finnegan, has in effect made the same accusation.

Already I can feel some readers asking themselves why we would spend a moment on a transparent and hypocritical exercise in Tory deflection ahead of the English council elections. Have Tory shills now wormed their way into the New Statesman?

Here are three responses. The first is that the accusation of evading tax and lying about it is a serious one, which we would pick up against any politician, and have. As Neidle said: “£3,500 is a significant amount of money for many people, and it’s corrosive to public trust in the tax system if there’s a perception that there’s ‘one rule for us and one for them’.” Rayner herself agrees: “I have always said that integrity and accountability are important in politics.”

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Those who think she should be given a free pass because she is a northern working-class woman who had a hard start in life and has fought her way up don’t understand the electorate, and are guilty of condescension. Voters are less interested in personal “backstories” (itself a Westminster term) than in what the elected will do for them. They believe rules are for everyone; indeed, that was the essence of the Labour case against Boris Johnson.

The second reason is that this is almost as much about Keir Starmer, who at one point wanted to sack her, as it is about Angela Rayner. Although relations have been difficult between her and Starmer, she cannot complain about the unstinting, steely support she has had from him. Again and again, Starmer has given her “100 per cent backing”; so have Rachel Reeves, Yvette Cooper and many others.

That in itself was a big choice: Starmer has made it clear that, after the Tory years, in his words, “honesty, integrity and telling the truth matter in our politics”. He is a proud and stubborn man, however, who would hate to have to throw a colleague to the wolves of the popular press. The Labour high command, increasingly irritated about how long the story is running, see it as an attempt to deflect voters ahead of the local elections, upon which Rishi Sunak’s future as Prime Minister may depend. Their instinct is: don’t give the bastards an inch. Back Angela all the way.

But until the Greater Manchester Police publicly explain exactly what offences they are investigating, it’s hard for Starmer to say much more. The statute of limitations built in to the 1983 Representation of the People Act makes legal challenges about the electoral roll seem a dead end. Even the Tory MP who raised it with the police, James Daly, seems perplexed.

But having overheard Conservatives planning their campaign in the Commons, I know they see the Labour leader as their chief target – can he be portrayed as weak and hypocritical when it comes to his deputy? Again, this might seem a very small story, but political history tells us that something which begins as trivial can suddenly explode into consequence. A can of beer? A takeaway curry?

The third and final reason for talking about all this is Angela Rayner herself. There’s nobody like her at Westminster. She is that rarity: a charismatic outsider. She, no one else, has made the Rayner story nationally known: left school at 16 with no qualifications, having taken her GCSEs while pregnant with her first child; cared for an illiterate and suicidal mother; threatened with being taken into care; disabled child; grandmother at 37. She is gobby, direct and very tough indeed.

Again, voters may be interested and/or sympathetic, but this is not what ultimately governs their politics. It is a fine thing that somebody with Rayner’s hard background is so prominent in British politics and so deft at wrong-footing the posh boys. But let’s not pretend that her story is typical of anything, still less of northern working-class women – look at Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, for instance. And let’s not assume that all those who are angry and suspicious about Rayner are posh, or indeed boys.

A Labour government with Angela Rayner as deputy prime minister would feel quite different from one without her. She is the custodian of Labour’s huge and controversial workers’ rights agenda and she clicks with party workers yearning for the fierier days of “real Labour”. Beyond that, she offers colour and a hint of danger unseen elsewhere in the shadow cabinet. Starmer with Rayner at his shoulder is harder to caricature as grey and safety-first. And thinking about the wider electorate’s sporadic, easily bored attitude to politics, attention-snagging is valuable.

How valuable, is the question? The Rayner affair has already cost Labour days of campaigning on defence policy, education and the economy. Her historical council house has knocked countless interviews, including about Labour policy on council housing, off course. It has blurred the Labour message ahead of vital local elections. To that extent, from a Tory point of view, it has already done its job.

Hanging in the air right now is the question of what would happen if Rayner was charged and decided to resign; she said she would go if she committed a criminal offence, but that may be a long way off. Would she resign not only from her shadow cabinet roles but also as deputy leader of the party? That would require another deputy leadership election. It would come, presumably, at the late-September party conference in Liverpool, meant to be a springboard for the general election campaign. Who would run? How factional, divisive and disruptive might that be?

So, by far the best thing for Labour is that this story lies down and dies, including from embarrassment; we all know how the serious tax-avoiders vote. Starmer cannot assume that will happen. At the very least, he ought to require his deputy to show him all the advice and documentation. The lawyer inside him knows he cannot be ambushed with information he didn’t know. I don’t believe this is the great scandal the Tories are looking for to reverse their electoral fortunes – but it feels dangerous. Keir Starmer may need every ounce of his famed ruthlessness and focus on winning, I’m afraid, in the weeks ahead.

[See also: Can a Labour government avoid early unpopularity?]

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran