When Keir Starmer offered the role of chief of staff to Sue Gray, the senior civil servant who oversaw the partygate inquiry, he craved an organiser on his inner team who understood the interlocking levers of Whitehall — and the pitfalls of operating them.
The “exam question” was how to ensure that an Opposition lacking match practice in the practice of power would not be caught ill-prepared if Labour were to win the next election. Gray’s forthright advice was to move at least a year beforehand and assemble a team Starmer would be happy to govern with any time an election was called.
Yesterday saw her start her job at Labour HQ and a reshuffle which reflected her advice. The result has been deemed a “Blairite” revival, which was not really Starmer’s intention. He was not an enthusiastic Blairite at the time (other than through membership of the diehard London sect of Labour lawyers), so this is less tribute band and more a template he thinks will de-risk his election chances.
When advising Boris Johnson, first in his mayoral quests and then in the attempt to get to No10, the strategist Lynton Crosby used to talk of “getting the barnacles off the boat”, to smooth his candidate’s path to success.
Starmer is in barnacle destruction mode, riding roughshod over the hopes of many who have served him in Opposition. His approach this week was, I am told, “unsentimental”. So the key roles are going to people who are either experienced or enjoy personal trust. It means the return of totemic New Labour figure Liz Kendall as shadow welfare secretary and more awareness of the need to match the few remaining top Tory performers with Labour marksmen. So Oliver Dowden, the Cabinet Office minister who often seems to be holding the remnants of a shambolic government together, gets Pat McFadden — also Labour’s campaigns boss — on his case.
This is less Blairite tribute band and more a template Starmer thinks will de-risk his election chances
Michael Gove as levelling up and housing denizen faces Angela Rayner in an expanded role with the promise of the deputy PM job ahead. It does rather feel as if Starmer needs to keep Rayner very busy to offset rumours of strains. The John Prescott model is clear — the party always needs a figure at the top table who can offset the impression of being run by a university-educated elite and Rayner has the magic touch of human connection, as well as a mischievous delight in taking on veteran Tories.
It has left front bench roadkill, notably in the sidelining of Lisa Nandy who came closest to being a credible challenger to the rise of Starmer. She has moved to a holding job at international development (a role largely now overseen by the shadow foreign secretary) — not a comfortable position. Nandy is outspoken and had applied herself to the levelling up brief, including in the financial and planning detail to boost house building.
“He needed the space for Rayner and was clinical about that,” says one fellow shadow cabinet figure. “The question is whether Angela is really minded to handle the gritty detail — or just wants to roam around thumping the Tories and talking about workers’ rights”. Hilary Benn’s return as shadow Northern Ireland secretary boosts experience (along with Yvette Cooper as shadow home secretary). Both have the direct senior ministerial experience Starmer himself lacks.
The sideways moves of the “soft Left” figures of Nandy, John Ashworth at welfare and Lucy Powell from the culture and media redoubt to shadow leader of the House, see a move away from the more Leftist tradition Starmer represented not so long ago. (A rare remaining representative of this wing is Ed Miliband in the climate-change brief.)
What has changed is the blooming scent of power. This is a team intended to spearhead a full-frontal attack on the Tories’ record with precision ammunition. Gray, along with informal advisers including Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair, have driven home the message that Labour needs to look not just like a possible alternative to tired and fractious Conservatives, who are having foot-in-mouth moments (Gillian Keegan’s ill-disciplined slip-up off-mic over the school buildings furore felt like a display of tetchy exhaustion).
Starmer knows that shouldering all the burdens of government, alongside the fiscal constraints he has embraced to show discipline over spending, needs assiduous preparation to be a convincing recipe for power. That is the message he has acted on in his day of the short knives. Even if he has effectively sacked his younger, Leftier self in the process.
Anne McElvoy is executive editor at POLITICO