How Angela Rayner came out on top after spat with Starmer over reshuffle

·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Stefan Rousseu/PA</span>
Photograph: Stefan Rousseu/PA

Joe Biden and his vice-president, Kamala Harris, have a standing weekly date for a private one-to-one lunch, just as Biden did with Barack Obama.

Breaking bread is one way of keeping a political relationship on track. No wonder, perhaps, that Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner have decided to give it a go as they attempt to rebuild their relationship.

The weekly lunches were one of the promises made in protracted peace talks last weekend after the news that Starmer had wanted to move Rayner to another post – and that she had furiously refused.

The row inevitably left some shadow ministers privately recalling the toxic feud between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

The precise chronology of last weekend’s events remain in dispute between the two sides. Rayner’s camp insist that by the time Starmer called her in to discuss a change of role, they had already been contacted by journalists who had been briefed that she would be sidelined.

Starmer’s team insist that if there was any such briefing it did not come from them and was “absolutely not” authorised by Starmer himself. His closest parliamentary aide, Carolyn Harris, resigned on Tuesday amid claims that she had stoked the row.

The Labour leader’s aides say they believed Rayner wanted a frontbench role with a portfolio to shadow, instead of spending so much of her time on internal party matters.

Some Starmer supporters also point to briefing from Rayner’s camp, even before the Hartlepool byelection result, that distanced her from the campaign and pointed to tensions with the leadership.

Whatever the truth, Rayner felt that removing her from the role of national campaign coordinator was an attempt to make her the scapegoat for the loss of Hartlepool and a string of other disappointing results. She responded angrily to Starmer’s suggestion and the spat between the pair quickly became public.

Few would dispute that it was Rayner who eventually came out on top.

Brought up by a single mother, for whom she became a carer from the age of 10, Rayner came to politics through trade union organising rather than the Oxford University Labour club.

Friends say nothing infuriates her more than the sense that she is being underestimated by anyone – but particularly a middle-class man – with more formal qualifications.

As the chaotic fallout from Hartlepool played on social media last Saturday evening, members of the party’s governing NEC received a message on the encrypted messaging app Signal telling them the story about Rayner being moved was false.

“But then it turned out that message was a complete lie. She was sacked. Journalists told her that before the meeting with Keir. She fought her way back in,” one source close to the body said.

The backlash left the leader’s office in no doubt as to the breadth of Rayner’s support in the parliamentary party and the wider Labour movement.

The Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, made his opposition to the move public, and the Guardian understands Starmer’s office received a string of other representations from shadow ministers and Labour-supporting unions.

“Angela has so much political capital,” said one party official.

It was more than enough for Starmer’s team to delay the wider reshuffle until her role was sorted to her satisfaction.

While shadow cabinet members such as Anneliese Dodds and Nick Brown awaited news of their fate, Starmer’s chief of staff, Morgan McSweeney, and Rayner’s longstanding lieutenant Nick Parrott spent much of Sunday negotiating terms.

Meanwhile, according to several sources, Rayner’s outriders were out quietly scoping for support for a potential leadership challenge.

Her team flatly deny this idea, insisting she could have stood for the leadership a year ago if she had wanted it. They say her motivation in holding out was to ensure that she – and by implication the trades unions – could continue to play a key role in shaping Labour’s direction.

Hence her several new titles, including shadow secretary of state for the future of work – an area Ed Miliband, as shadow business secretary, and Rachel Reeves, as shadow chancellor, might understandably have thought was within their purview.

Shadow ministers who know Starmer and Rayner well say the tensions between the pair have been more personal than ideological – unlike Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson, who came from different wings of the party.

Starmer and Rayner are seen as on Labour’s soft left. While Rayner was a longstanding member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, she is regarded with suspicion by many in the Corbynite Campaign Group, who fear she would take a harder line on issues such as migration and defence than they could support.

As the dust settles on last weekend’s drama, Labour strategists know they face an extraordinarily tough period ahead, and privately concede they have been wrongfooted by Boris Johnson’s quick pivot from “jabs, jabs, jabs to jobs, jobs, jobs,” as the prime minister put it this week.

The Guardian understands that internal party soundings suggest Labour could lose the upcoming byelection in Batley and Spen, the seat soon to be vacated by the new Labour mayor of West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin.

It will certainly be an early test for Starmer’s new campaigns chief, the MP Shabana Mahmood, and his head of strategy, the pollster and political analyst Deborah Mattinson. Another lost byelection would inevitably prompt fresh panic.

Most pressingly, MPs from across the party are calling on Starmer to do what has been understandably difficult during the pandemic, and set out what he – and Labour – stands for.

He is expected to lay out this “sense of purpose,” as one party strategist called it, before the summer, which his team then plans to spend touring the country, taking questions from members of the public at a slew of town hall-style meetings, before he assembles the party for its first conference under his leadership, in Brighton in September.

A Corbyn-sceptic member of the NEC said: “I think the fundamental question that needs to be answered soon is: why are you here? What are you actually doing this for?”

Starmer is also under pressure to shake up his team and the way they make decisions, which one Labour staffer complained was as mysterious as a “papal court”.

One staff member whom Starmer seems determined to stick by is his political secretary, Jenny Chapman. But senior officials and shadow ministers, many of whom were backers of Starmer in the leadership, have suggested her management style is alienating many.

“I have never encountered someone so difficult to deal with, and I went through the Corbyn years,” one senior official said.

Starmer still has staunch support in his shadow cabinet. One colleague described him as “objectively the best candidate for prime minister for an opposition party since 2005”.

While many wince at last weekend’s botched reshuffle, they point out that in the end he got broadly what he wanted: Reeves as shadow chancellor, Dodds to work up policy as party chair, and Rayner in a frontbench role.

But he has learned the hard way that Rayner has a significant power base and is not shy of using it.

“Fundamentally, Keir thought that he had the authority to call in Angela and just say: ‘With a heavy heart, I must relieve of your duties …’ like he was still DPP [director of public prosecutions] and talking to his staff. But how naive to believe that you can do that with someone like Angela Rayner, with her own mandate,” one shadow minister said.

Another said Starmer was not a creature of the parliamentary Labour party (PLP). “He isn’t a tea room person, he isn’t a gossip, so it’s a very managerial relationship he has with MPs. He doesn’t have a base in the party – his power base is his electability.”

Starmer will address the PLP on Monday, and MPsexpect a conciliatory tone. “People want this to be over, I doubt we will see fireworks,” one MP said. “But the damage is done, his authority looks shaken.” Or as one party staffer put it: “If you come at the queen of the north, you’d better not miss.”