Sir Keir Starmer reshuffles Labour team amid threats over leadership

·5-min read
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (right) with Deputy Leader Angela Rayner during a visit to Birmingham, whilst on the election campaign trail. - Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (right) with Deputy Leader Angela Rayner during a visit to Birmingham, whilst on the election campaign trail. - Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Sir Keir Starmer on Sunday night reshuffled his shadow cabinet, switching people in seven senior roles in an attempt to reset after disappointing local elections and days of infighting.

The Labour leader removed Anneliese Dodds as shadow chancellor, the highest profile change after criticism that she had not done enough to cut through to voters.

Nick Brown was sacked as chief whip - a post he held under Jeremy Corbyn as well as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - while Valerie Vaz was removed as shadow Commons leader.

Changes were also made to the positions of party chair, national campaign coordinator, shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and shadow housing secretary.

Angela Rayner, the Labour deputy leader, had been removed from the first two of those roles on Saturday but managed to take on two new positions after 24 hours of talks with Sir Keir.

The context for the shake-up was mounting pressure on his leadership after the disastrous defeat in the Hartlepool by-election to the Conservatives and the loss of more than 300 English council seats on Thursday.

Pincered by criticism from the party’s Left and moderate wings, Sir Keir faced a crescendo of public criticism from the hard-Left on Sunday, including warnings of a leadership challenge.

However the apparent boldness of Sir Keir’s move faded somewhat on closer inspection when it emerged almost all those removed from posts took up other shadow cabinet roles.

Of the frontbenchers removed from their original positions, only two figures - Mr Brown and Ms Vaz - left the shadow cabinet entirely.

Despite pressure from the left-wing there was no attempt to bring in prominent Corbyn allies, or indeed any major new figures from the front benches of Mr Blair, Mr Brown or Ed Miliband.

Instead Sir Keir’s reshuffle focussed on moving previously loyal figures into different roles in an attempt to quicken the party’s modernisation and reconnect with disaffected voters.

Confirming his new shadow cabinet, Sir Keir said: “The Labour Party must be the party that embraces the demand for change across our country.

“That will require bold ideas and a relentless focus on the priorities of the British people. Just as the pandemic has changed what is possible and what is necessary, so Labour must change too.”

Ms Dodds, the most high profile demotion, will move from the Treasury brief to become party chair and chair of the Labour policy review.

Rachel Reeves, once a trusted figure on Ed Miliband’s front bench, will become the new shadow chancellor, ending her time overseeing the Cabinet Office.

Thangam Debbonaire moves from shadow housing secretary to shadow Commons leader, replacing Ms Vaz.

Wes Streeting remained in the child poverty brief but the post was elevated to a full shadow cabinet position.

Mr Brown is replaced as chief whip by his deputy, Alan Campbell.

The sacking of Mr Brown, who had headed up the whipping operation under Mr Corbyn during a turbulent period of internal party strife, triggered criticism from some on the Left.

John McDonnell, Mr Corbyn’s shadow chancellor, called Mr Brown one of Labour’s “most experienced and tactically astute chief whips”, dubbing his sacking “inept in the extreme”.

The two roles Ms Rayner was stripped off were given elsewhere, with Ms Dodds taking the party chair and Shabana Mahmood becoming national campaign coordinator.

However, after a day of pushback from allies after news of the changes broke, she was handed new positions: the Cabinet Office brief and a new role overseeing the ‘future of work’.

Figures close to Ms Rayner had claimed she was pushing back on Sir Keir’s initial offers throughout Sunday in a move said to have held up the wider reshuffle.

An ally of Ms Rayner said on Sunday night: “Angela obviously comes out of this significantly more powerful both in terms of the party and policy. She will be much more visible now she isn't being held back.”

Over the weekend Sir Keir faced some of the most challenging days of his year-long Labour leadership as he attempted to reshape his senior team after the election disappointment.

He has been criticised by both the Left and moderate wings of his party.

But prominent Corbyn allies on Sunday escalated the criticism.

John Trickett, who held a string of front bench roles under Mr Corbyn, voiced his disquiet at Sir Keir’s leadership on Sunday in an interview with journalist and campaigner Owen Jones.

“He lacks basic political skills to be able to give a vision and win a vision in the country, frame an argument and build a consensus,” he said of Sir Keir.

“If it comes to the questions of a leadership challenge, I don’t think we should rule it out.

“A leader who has won the votes on the back of promises which were then reneged on, some of them quite quickly, needs to come clean.”

Mr McDonnell, one of Labour’s most prominent Left-wingers after serving as Mr Corbyn’s shadow chancellor, vowed to fight moderates within the party.

“If we have to fight it we will fight it in every branch, in every trade union, in every meeting at every conference,” he said.

“I’m not into leadership coups. I believe we have to win the battle of ideas and, yes, if necessary, at different times the battle for elected positions as well.

“But the first step is to explain to Keir just how serious that is … Hopefully those around him wake up to it.”

Richard Burgon, shadow justice secretary under Mr Corbyn, called for a “special Labour Party conference” to determine if there was “confidence” in Sir Keir’s comeback plans.

Sir Keir, elected leader last April, is not yet being openly challenged and no candidate has emerged publicly who is willing to seek to unseat him.

But the warnings and the severity of criticism from the Left complicates his attempts to keep the party united, undercutting the stability of his position.

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