Most shadow cabinet reshuffles do not matter very much. This one does for several reasons. Most fundamentally Keir Starmer hopes this will be his last reshuffle before the general election. Barring unforeseen circumstances his new team is the one that will form the next government if Labour wins the election. But there is another bigger reason why the reshuffle matters. Starmer is at the height of his powers in relation to his party, a leader well ahead in the polls. He is in the rare position for a Labour leader of being able to do more of less what he wants without fearing dissent.
This is Starmer’s team of choice and therefore sheds light on the type of government he seeks to lead and who he calculates will help him to win the election. He acted with characteristic ruthlessness but he had the rare space to be brutal.
One shadow cabinet member described the changes to me as an ‘elite level Blairite coup’. The frontbencher, who remains in the shadow cabinet, noted that five former special advisers from the Blair era now have prominent posts. They join several of those in Starmer’s office who used to work with Blair in some form or other. Starmer makes many calculations in promoting the rise of those that worship at the Blairite altar. He and his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, are obsessed with following New Labour before 1997 in making no significant spending commitments.
Labour’s Blairite wing are the true believers in the argument that ‘reform’ and ‘technology’ are the key to revising the UK’s economy and public services, not big spending increases. Starmer wants ‘reform’ to be a driving theme at the party conference next month.
Meanwhile the likes of Liz Kendall, Pat McFadden and Peter Kyle are effective interviewees. The previous shadow cabinet had few impressive performers. Starmer also wants to show in vivid colours that Labour has made big leaps away from the Corbyn era. There is no more effective way of doing so than including in his top team those that are as far removed as it is possible to be from the former Labour leader.
But it is too simplistic to argue that the new shadow cabinet is ‘Blairite’ whatever that term means in the current context. Other factors came in to play. His elected deputy, Angela Rayner, needed a meaty brief and she has got one with the Levelling Up remit. Rayner is a pragmatist but is no Blairite. She will need to be extremely supple. Her predecessor, Lisa Nandy, had pledged an historic transfer of power away from the centre. Nandy assumed Starmer agreed with her as this was the main theme of his new year speech in January when he spoke of communities “taking back control”. But there are inevitable tensions over how much power the centre will want to retain rather than give away to mayors and councils. Rayner will be Deputy Prime Minister giving her some leverage over wider government policy.
Some close to Starmer wanted Ed Miliband sacked. This has not happened. Miliband helped Starmer secure his seat in the 2015 election. The two live close to each other although do not speak often these days. But Starmer remains committed to the so called green recovery plan even if he has wobbled over the ULEZ policy after losing the Uxbridge by-election.
I’m told that Sue Gray, Starmer’s new chief of staff, was one of those supporting the appointment of three front benchers to shadow the cabinet office, rather than one. This is unusual. Gray knows the cabinet office can be a driver of change in government but can also be a department where ministers pull levers and not much happens. Now Pat McFadden, Nick Thomas Symonds and Jonathan Ashworth will be preparing to pull various levers from the cabinet office if Labour wins. Thomas Symonds will be responsible for improving the Brexit deal , a complex challenging task which he has already discreetly begun from opposition. The appointment of Hilary Benn as shadow Northern Ireland Secretary is also significant in this context. Northern Ireland and Brexit remain thorny issues in spite of Sunak’s improvements to the protocol.
In terms of policy making the reshuffle has little practical impact in the short term. The shadow ministers responsible for Labour’s so called ‘missions’ are all still in place. Meanwhile Starmer’s office is as controlling as Blair’s used to be in the build up to 1997. He and Rachel Reeves will make the key policy decisions. Currently shadow cabinet members are preparing their conference speeches, but the leader’s office is taking a close interest in what each of them are proposing in various drafts, often sending back detailed revisions and cuts.
Of more immediate importance to the fate of Starmer and indeed Sunak are the by-elections coming up. If Labour do not gain Rutherglen in Scotland from the SNP, a seat they won in the 2017 general election when Jeremy Corbyn was leader, there will be no substantial revival there at the general election. If Labour wins Starmer has a fresh narrative, Labour is back in a part of the UK they used to dominate.The Mid Beds by-election is also a big test. Tactical voting becomes tricky when both Labour and the Lib Dems want to win as is currently the case in that seat.
After the next couple of months of by-elections, party conferences and an Autumn Statement from the chancellor the outcome of the general election will probably be clearer and what Labour will do in government will also be less foggy than it is now.