The party conference season is over, having confirmed the new power in the land. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, is now running the country. Keir Starmer, who had a successful conference, would be nowhere without her.
The expectation of a Labour government within a year is built on the rock of her control over the finances of the incoming administration. She has established the strategy for the election, which is to make no uncosted, unfunded spending promises and to accept Conservative plans for spending, taxing and borrowing with minor, specified exceptions.
Starmer agrees with the strategy, but it is not his; it is hers. Looking back, we can see that 9 May 2021 was an important date in the restoration of Labour’s credibility. That was when Reeves was promoted from shadow minister for the Cabinet Office to shadow chancellor.
To say that this was significant is not to disparage Anneliese Dodds, Starmer’s first shadow chancellor. Dodds has done heroic, if unsung, work since as shadow equalities minister, rescuing Starmer and the party from its unpopular embrace of gender self-identification. But she was never going to be the right person to assert Labour’s credentials as the party of fiscal discipline.
That task fell to Reeves, who is a good fit. Economist at the Bank of England. Chess player. Strong public speaker. Brutal with Tories in the House of Commons. Quick and partisan in debate. Sharp political instincts.
She is capable of immense dullness. It is a political gift: the ability to say little but to hammer away at the same themes. As the recipient of almost daily press releases from her, I can confirm that they are of mindless on-message banality. Every time the Office for National Statistics publishes a new number or the Bank of England announces an interest-rate change, there is a press release from the shadow chancellor saying: “Labour will get our country building again so we can boost growth, make working people better off and get Britain’s future back.”
She is also capable of great political skill. For some time now she has been moving Labour into the right position to take maximum advantage of Conservative disarray. Every few weeks this year, she has injected another dose of realism into the party.
Part of this has been dismantling her own plan to borrow for green investment, which she devised in her early days as shadow chancellor at a time when interest rates were low and the case for higher public investment was strong.
Her retreat was a carefully planned operation, which included the unusual device of delivering a speech in June that was “off the record”, to an audience of green pressure groups, think tanks and opinion-formers. Having prepared the ground, she then announced that, if Labour won the election, it would not be borrowing an extra £28bn a year for its Green Prosperity Plan straight away. That target would be reached in the middle of the next parliament, she said.
This week, she confirmed that the £28bn includes £8bn a year of existing government investment, making it £20bn of new money. Meanwhile, her people hinted to the Financial Times that the target might not be met until the end of the parliament, rather than the middle.
Unsurprisingly, there was speculation at the Labour conference in Liverpool about whether Ed Miliband, the shadow energy secretary, really would return to his old office in government. He left in 2010 as secretary of state at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, a department that was later abolished and which was revived this year as the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero.
Miliband, the author of a book of green ambition called Go Big, has been ferociously loyal to Reeves in her efforts to Go Small, so it would be interesting to see how their relationship works in government. Perhaps they are both Blairites now – Reeves having long ago nominated Ed Miliband for the leadership in preference to his brother. As John McTernan, Tony Blair’s former political secretary, put it on the BBC’s Today programme on Thursday, the “soft left” tends to become Blairite when it meets reality.
Having undergone reality therapy, Reeves has gained in power. Blair used to be irritated when Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown’s press secretary, used to suggest that he and his chancellor were a dual leadership. No doubt Starmer will be annoyed if I suggest that this is more true of him and Reeves than it ever was of Blair and Brown. But Starmer ought to recognise it as a strength of his, that he is able to concede great authority to Reeves for the good of the Labour team.
That Labour stands on the brink of power owes most to the failings of the Conservative Party, but in exploiting that disorder Reeves and Starmer are joint authors of a successful strategy – one that could not have been put into effect by the leader without his shadow chancellor.