OPINION - Keir Starmer’s reshuffle is about doubling down on Labour’s new seriousness

Sir Keir Starmer’s biggest question was always the destination of Angela Rayner (PA Wire)
Sir Keir Starmer’s biggest question was always the destination of Angela Rayner (PA Wire)

When Sue Gray worked in government one of her many sought-after skills was her advice on reshuffles. Today she reports for duty as Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff and will walk straight into a reshuffle. In a way this is an odd time to change the shadow cabinet. A few people are going to have to scribble a new speech for Labour party conference without much notice.

That said, there should be a clear purpose to the changes which is to assemble the Labour team which will form the next government. Sue Gray has come into Starmer’s office, with an impeccable pedigree as a Whitehall insider, to work on the transition into government. It is to be hoped she wastes no time on further reforms to government departments. Which brings us to the reshuffle and which person should sit where.

The top team — Rachel Reeves at the Treasury, Wes Streeting at Health and Yvette Cooper at the Home Office — is likely to remain unchanged, but there were some important questions to be resolved. The biggest question was always the destination of Angela Rayner. The deputy leader of the Labour party is an elected position so Rayner will remain Starmer’s effective number two irrespective of his decision. But Starmer has chosen a significant promotion, from the non-job of shadowing Oliver Dowden at the Cabinet Office to the Department of Levelling Up and a guarantee that she will be Deputy Prime Minister in a Labour government.

Labour had a truly terrible result in 2019, its worst since 1935 and that means talent is not in abundant supply

There are two problems posed by Rayner which this reshuffle is designed to fix. The first is that the leader and the deputy have not always rubbed along perfectly. There have been times when Rayner has coveted the top job. At the moment, with an emphatic lead in the opinion polls, Starmer looks unassailable. But that can change quickly under the pressure of government. You do not want a rival with idle hands, so it makes sense for Starmer to give Rayner a departmental brief.

The second reason is that Labour does definitely have a Rayner problem in the sense that her name does excite, especially from business audiences, the suspicion that Labour’s residual Left, which after all ran the party until recently, might yet resurface. In fact, as Starmer’s announcement that Labour will not raise income tax during a term of government shows, Labour is desperate to reassure the nation that it will be fiscally conservative.

Now she has been given a real department to shadow, with policy to develop, Angela Rayner would begin to show that, in fact, she is not quite the Left-wing leviathan business audiences sometimes suggest. It always makes sense in the Labour party to court the Left when you are running for office. But it was Rayner, remember, who said she owed a great deal to Tony Blair at a time when Labour politicians were not falling over themselves to commemorate their most successful former leader. Rayner too was a good shadow education secretary who showed deft political skill and some courage in taking Labour away from being over-dependent on the teaching unions. Lisa Nandy will now move on from Levelling Up but a government in waiting needs people who can handle a hostile media round and Nandy has become one of Labour’s more accomplished performers. As shadow on international development, she has kept her place round the table.

There are other issues to resolve. Ed Miliband’s desire to spend lots of money has been curbed by Rachel Reeves and it may be that Labour needs a new start on climate change.

Shabana Mahmood is clearly good enough to be promoted but might be doing too well in the vital position as election co-ordinator. Darren Jones is another talented performer who ought to be brought in. Pat McFadden is a reassuring voice, the sort who sounds like he means it when he promises not to spend all the nation’s money.

Labour had a terrible result in 2019, its worst since 1935 and that means talent is not in abundant supply. The team is solid rather than spectacular but, these days, with the Government we have, solid is the new magnificent. This is a reshuffle about reassurance and seriousness of purpose. Welcome to politics, Sue.

Philip Collins is a columnist and founder of The Draft