How Angela Rayner could go from Labour’s trump card to their millstone

Angela Rayner
'She is the only politician of any party that working-class voters name as someone they like'

One is an urbane, Oxford-educated North London lawyer, the other is a gobby working-class Northerner prone to getting into scrapes for speaking their mind.

We could be talking here about Tony Blair and John Prescott, but the description just as neatly fits the current Labour leadership of Sir Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner.

And in a week when Ms Rayner is under more scrutiny than ever before thanks to controversy over a house sale, the same questions are being asked about her as were once asked about Prescott: is she a priceless asset to the Party or a hopeless liability?

Ms Rayner brings to Labour’s front bench the sort of authenticity that none of her colleagues can match. While the party’s image-makers love to remind people of her rise from teenage single mum to shadow deputy prime minister, her appeal to the wider public lies in her perceived honesty, surveys show.

Pollsters say she brings flavour to politics at a time when the main party leaders are as spicy as mashed potato, and her flat Stockport vowels are a useful counterbalance to Sir Keir’s lawyerly delivery.

Until now, her unique brand has proved immune to such controversies as her description of Tories as “scum”. It was the verbal equivalent of John (now Lord) Prescott punching a member of the public in 2001, which was met with a shrug by Blair (now Sir Tony) as he said: “John is John.”

Angela Rayner
Angela Rayner with John Prescott in a photograph she posted on social media to wish him a happy birthday in May 2023

Merely saying that “Angela is Angela” will not be enough to diffuse the crisis facing Labour’s current deputy leader, as her house sale is being scrutinised by the police and, in the year of the general election, her popularity with the public could be in genuine danger.

James Frayne, founding partner of the policy research agency Public First, says that until now Rayner has been a “crazily huge asset” to Labour but that her popularity could be damaged beyond repair if voters decide she is not as honest and straightforward as they thought she was.

He said: “Four or five years, ago she got a mixed reaction in focus groups, some people really liked her and some people really didn’t, but two or three years ago she started being brought up a lot in focus groups, unprompted, especially by what you might categorise as working-class swing voters.

“They described her as honest, authentic and bracingly different, and even now she is the only politician of any party that working-class voters name as someone they like.”

That could all change, however, depending on the outcome of a police investigation into her financial affairs.

To recap: Ms Rayner, who purchased her council house in 2007 under the Right to Buy scheme, sold it in 2015 and made a profit of £48,000. She says it was her main residence, meaning she was not liable for capital gains tax on the profit.

Angela Rayner's council house
Angela Rayner made a profit of £48,000 on her Right to Buy council house

And that would be the end of that, were it not for the fact that five years earlier, after her marriage to Mark Rayner, she had re-registered the births of her two youngest children at his address, raising questions about whether that was, in reality, her main residence.

If that were the case, her former council property would be a second home and liable for CGT, as married couples can only count one property as their main home under HMRC rules.

Ms Rayner, who became MP for Ashton-under-Lyne the same year that she sold the property, has said that like anyone else she simply put her house on the market, used a solicitor and an estate agent, and was not aware of the HMRC rules at the time.

Since the tax questions have arisen, she says, she has taken advice from a tax expert that was “categoric that I do not owe any capital gains tax”.

Sir Keir has given his backing to his deputy’s decision not to publish that tax advice, saying he has “full confidence” in her.

Labour insiders say Sir Keir has now come to accept Ms Rayner is a net asset
Labour insiders say Sir Keir has now come to accept Ms Rayner is a net asset - Eddie Mulholland

Greater Manchester Police, which initially said Ms Rayner would not face an investigation, is now looking at the case again, and has assigned a detective chief inspector to reassess the matter after the Tory deputy chairman James Daly complained that officers had not contacted witnesses or looked at relevant documents.

Regardless of the outcome, Sir Keir cannot sack Ms Rayner, as deputy leaders are directly elected by Labour members. Whether he might want to is a more interesting question.

Sir Keir did sack Ms Rayner from a role as Labour’s campaign coordinator after the Hartlepool byelection in 2021, when the Conservatives won the seat from Labour with a huge swing.

There were even rumours that Ms Rayner might challenge him for the leadership. The following year she told the BBC Sir Keir needed to put “more welly” into his speeches, suggesting tensions were not far below the surface.

Labour insiders say Sir Keir has now come to accept Ms Rayner, whom he trusts to stand in for him at Prime Minister’s Questions when Rishi Sunak is away, and can see that, like Prescott before her, she is a net asset to him.

Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner attends Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in Sir Keir Starmer's place
Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner is trusted to attend Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in Sir Keir Starmer's place - Jessica Taylor/AFP via Getty Images

Ms Rayner is far more popular than Prescott ever was, Frayne says, and more useful.

For starters, Sir Tony was far more popular than Sir Keir, and didn’t really need to be buttressed by a rufty-tufty Left-winger.

Prescott’s primary role was as a bridge between New Labour and old Labour, especially the unions, who always remained suspicious of the privately educated Sir Tony and preferred dealing with a plain-talking former shop steward in the form of the then MP for Kingston upon Hull East.

Rayner, in contrast, is a bridge between the north London dinner party set that dominates Labour ideology and the Red Wall seats that defected to Boris Johnson’s Tories in 2019 and which Sir Keir needs to win back.

Added to the mix is the fact that Sir Keir is no Sir Tony. It is no coincidence that Rayner’s sudden surge in popularity has coincided with the era of Starmer and Sunak, two leaders who are, to many voters, so bland as to be indistinguishable from each other.

Frayne says: “Prescott was useful for speaking to the party machine, Rayner is useful for speaking to the public. “Whether she retains her popularity depends on whether the issue about her house affects the way people see her.

“Her appeal is not based on policy or anything ideological, it’s because she is seen as tough, honest and truth-telling, and if people decide that is no longer the case there is no coming back.”

One person who knows how this works is Mr Sunak. During the pandemic, he was seen by the public as honest, different and fresh as he masterminded the furlough scheme, but his involvement in Partygate and controversy over his family finances turned voters against him and his poll ratings have never recovered.

Whether Ms Rayner’s personal popularity goes the same way would now seem to be in the hands of Greater Manchester Police.